Horror often doubles as a metaphor for very real, unsettling topics. From George A. Romero's zombie films that explore race, to Rosemary's Baby commenting on rape culture, the genre is ripe for stories that make us confront the darkness in society and our worst fears. Natalie Erika James's debut feature, Relic, uses horror as a metaphor for dementia, and reimagines the illness as a haunted house horror film. The result is a bone-chilling movie that will earn a few screams and plenty of tears from audiences.
When octogenarian Edna (Robyn Nevin) inexplicably vanishes from her home, single mother Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) put aside their differences over Sam's aimless career and Kay's workaholic life in order to rush to the family's country home. They find a decaying house filled with notes posted everywhere with minor reminders, furniture scattered around in the wrong places, food left for a pet that's been dead for years, and rot spreading around the walls and doors. Of course, Edna appears as mysteriously as she disappeared, bringing with her more volatile behavior, as well as a seemingly insidious presence that scrapes and thumps inside the walls.
Like Ari Aster's Hereditary, this is a movie that starts out as the type of drama that's commonplace at Sundance, before unleashing unexpected terrors once the sun goes down. The moment Kay steps foot into the house she starts having nightmares about the property and a mysterious and horrific figure haunting its walls. Though there are some very effective jump scares, the film's strength lies in the way it builds dread, with every creaking noise and music cue slowly making the audience and the characters realize there's something horribly wrong going on, and that there is simply no escaping it.
What makes Relic really special is the way it plays on our fear of getting old. Though there is a long history of creepy old ladies in horror, aging itself isn't as commonly tackled. Sure, there's M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit or Adam Robitel's The Taking of Deborah Logan, but James's take is more subtle and emotional. The two leads do a great job portraying the fear of aging alone and the moment kids have to start taking care of their parents, with Emily Mortimer giving a particularly heartbreaking performance. However, the film really belongs to Robyn Nevin. As the film goes on, Nevin makes Edna's confusion and isolation overwhelmingly apparent, and her behavior turns more and more unsettling and angry as she fights with an invisible figure before having a short lapse back into lucidity.
Where many filmmakers say they want to turn the setting into a character but fail to do so in any meaningful way, James actually succeeds in bringing this house to life. Only here it isn't a character in and of itself, but an extension of Edna's dementia. The house's dark shadows and decay rot the once warm and lively pastel colors; the floors creak, the mold eats away at the walls, and there's a never-ending clutter of furniture and random things spread around. James and her co-writer Christian White take the haunted house story to a new level once the house's structure itself becomes unpredictable, with endless halls changing place and doors appearing where they shouldn't, trapping the characters in a place that was once familiar.
Comparisons between Relic and The Babadook are to be expected, and they're not that far off. Both Australian productions helmed by women deal with distinctive female perspectives, as well as horror in the home and mental illness as the ultimate monster. But where The Babadook keeps its monster at arm's length, the last 30 minutes of Relic are a tour-de-force of intensity and emotion. The haunted house story becomes a descent into hell, full of twists and grotesque imagery, all before James pulls back and reveals the emotionally devastating truth behind her feature debut: Age and decay is coming for us all, and the only thing we can do is take care of each other while we're still here.
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