Chasing Ghosts: ‘Relic’ Explores the Horrors of Dementia

Every year it seems, one or two titles will vie to occupy that all-important space as the prestige horror film of that year. Films like Hereditary, It Follows, The Babadook and Midsommar were festival darlings. These atmospheric, sumptuously shot pieces played with traditional horror conventions in intelligent ways. They also tended to be thematically strong and emphasise female perspectives. These films would win over genre die-hards and mainstream critics alike. This year, it seems like Relic, the debut feature from Natalie Erika James, has its eye on the prize. So how does Relic compare with these critically acclaimed movies?

Three generations of women collide when elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin) disappears from her family home. The search for Edna brings her daughter (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter (Bella Heathcote) to her isolated house to investigate and wait for her return. The labyrinthine house is as much of a character as any of the principle players, peppered with post-it notes reminding Edna to turn off taps and lights, and under siege by a creeping black mould. When Edna returns, her behaviour is erratic and she can’t, or won’t, explain her disappearance. It’s up to her daughter and granddaughter to work out whether she is succumbing to dementia or if dark forces are at work.

The script, a collaboration between Natalie Erika James and Christian White, is impressively sparse. There is minimal backstory or introduction to the central characters. Instead, the power of the performances carries us through, with the depth and strength of the central relationships implied rather than made explicit, but all the more effective for it. When a film plays with these universal themes, it often plays in its favour to keep the character backstories muted in order to more easily allow the audience to step into their shoes. It also heightens the feeling of intimacy that the audience gets from this snapshot of their lives.

It has to be noted that, unlike Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Relic keeps its horror influences at something of an arm’s length. Although there are some horror movie staples – banging walls and mysterious ichors, even a touch of some wince-inducing body horror – Relic does not dwell unduly on these kinds of shocks. The final act contains some unnerving imagery, but for most of the runtime Relic is more concerned with building a mounting sense of dread through impeccable sound design and the oppressive cinematography of Charlie Sarroff.

The world of Relic is claustrophobic, not because the spaces are small, but because it is constantly decaying. Characters are hemmed in in each frame by the chaotic clutter of a personal history that is being irretrievably lost. The house itself becomes a striking metaphor for dementia, and as the story progresses, it begins to feel more and more alive, thrumming with organic rhythms, and more and more malevolent. A sequence in which Heathcote becomes lost in the house feels like a cross between Mark S. Danielewski‘s experimental horror novel House of Leaves and Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher.

Of the films to which Relic will inevitably be compared, Ari Aster‘s Hereditary is probably nearest to the mark. Relic is a drama of family dynamics, in which the supernatural increases pre-existing pressures beyond the breaking point. With daughter and granddaughter at loggerheads over how Edna’s ongoing care should be managed, feelings of guilt and resentment bubble to the surface. The performances from all three central characters are visceral and real, and the real-life horrors of losing a loved one to unseen forces are extremely palpable.

An affecting parable about generational friction and the immense pain of watching a parent mentally disintegrate, in some ways Relic is an anti-haunted house story. The horror here is not that imprints of long dead humans will wander the hall of the house for eternity, but that they won’t. In the face of this kind of destruction, Edna will be simply erased. The sense of panic that Natalie Erika James conjures at this prospect makes Relic more than a match for its vaunted peers.


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