Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) arrive at the family home of Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin). Edna has gone missing, prompting an anxious Kay to find out what’s happened. When Edna suddenly re-appears as if nothing had happened, Kay becomes concerned and starts to become the parent. The onset of dementia has taken effect on Edna, to the point where she no longer recognises her daughter and grand-daughter. As Edna recoils from them, her behaviour becomes stranger. A dark patch starts to grow on her chest and appears to be linked to a similarly dark figure stalking the house – a manifestation of Edna’s corrosive dementia…
The Verdict: Some horror films can be throwbacks to films from a bygone era. Cast your mind back to the 1990s if you can. While Scream gave birth to the post-modern horror in the west, in the east it was all creepy ghost girls and dark, long-haired figures crawling through televisions. Time moved on though and so did the horror genre to other pastures like torture porn, before eventually wearing that fad out. New Australian-US horror Relic is a double-edged title in that it reflects on the frailty of the aging human body combined with the fact that the film itself is relatively ancient when viewed from a 2020 perspective. Relative being the operative word here, since it’s about three generations of women finding themselves dealing with the all-too-human horror of dementia. It’s like the 1990s never stopped.
First-time director Natalie Erika James came upon the idea after visiting her grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s. It was too late though, resulting in her grandmother forgetting who her grand-daughter was. That idea of being forgotten by someone who you love and having him / her gradually slip away as they lose their minds is a scary thought in itself. If James had stuck with just that one idea then it could have been an interesting alt-horror experience where the real horror is more human than inhuman. Instead, she bolted it on to a predictable domestic horror framework – dark passages, decaying plasterwork, an indistinct figure in the background, sounds that go bump in the night. Instead of crawling through a television, the dark presence crawls through the crumbling plasterwork as the rot spreads from Edna’s decaying mind into her house.
Robert Wise’s classic horror The Haunting suggested that it was the house itself that was the monster. To a less effective extent, James runs with that same idea. Visually, the film looks the part. Drab, dank and ominous cinematography get across that sickly aura of decay. James doesn’t quite know where to take it though, leaving the dark presence in the shadows with no real scares to speak of. The house is more creepy than unsettling. The pacing relies heavily on the slow-burn approach of domestic horror favoured by Ari Aster. However, the minimal dialogue, vague backstory and near-fatal lack of tension in James’ co-written script undermines the good work of the actors. They can only do so much with their thinly-written characters after all.
For a first effort, perhaps James was trying to be more subtle in her approach towards the horror genre rather than go for lame peek-a-boo scares. In that regard, Relic is an admirable attempt to try something a bit different… but instead becomes something too familiar and tired, undone by its own pretensions and funereal pacing. An interesting failure, but unlikely to give anyone sleepless nights this Hallowe’en.