Anyone who has a friend or relative afflicted with dementia knows it’s often like living in a real-life horror film. It’s frustrating, claustrophobic, guilt-inducing, and above all, frightening. Relic, the first feature film from director Natalie Erika James, deals with dementia, amongst other topics, in the guise of a horror film. Is it a haunted house movie? Is it a demonic presence movie? Well, yes to both. The script from Ms. James and Christian White blends multiple familiar aspects of horror films into something that ends up quite original.
“Ends up” is the key, because the first two-thirds of the story moves slower than a glacier in the middle of winter. Don’t get me wrong, the film looks great – the house and the atmosphere are ultra-creepy. It’s just that almost nothing happens during that span, and that’s an eternity for set up. Kay (Emily Mortimer) receives a call that a neighbor hasn’t seen her mother in a while. Kay and her 20ish daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, 2016) take the drive over the hills and through the woods to grandmother’s house. Their initial measured walk-thru of the house tells them (and us) much. Post-it notes are stuck everywhere, including one that says “Don’t follow it.” Spoiled fruit on the counter, a favorite chair moved, and food for a pet long ago passed, are all indicators that something is off. If that’s not enough, the house that grandma is missing from has mold on the walls and ceiling, and strange locks on doors.
After an unsuccessful search party through the nearby woods, Grandma Edna (Robyn Nevin) reappears with no recollection of where she’s been. Of course, this doesn’t really improve things for anyone. We sense that workaholic Kay and her mother have never really been close, and the same can be said for Kay and Sam. Generational disconnect is on display. And poor Edna has lost her husband, her pet dog, and most of her essence…except for the few moments when she snaps back to lucidity.
Dread and impending doom dominate every scene for the first hour. Kay has dreams of an old cabin from her past, and Edna has an unexplained bruise on her chest. The stained-glass window on the front door is a key, and the sounds coming from the walls are unable to be tracked down. As disoriented as Edna is, the house itself has that impact on us and Sam. Is it the house that’s haunted, or the characters?
The cinematography from Charlie Sarroff plays well off the stillness and unknown, and the sound design and music (Brian Reitzell) work hand-in-hand in establishing the creepy atmosphere. The three actresses are superb, and I especially enjoyed Ms. Nevin and her piercing eyes, as she is known mostly for her live theatre work (and also as Councillor Dillard in The Matrix movies). For her first feature, Ms. James has delivered a high-concept Australian horror/suspense film with a very original (and weird) ending. Others may be a bit higher on the film, but we likely all agree that Ms. James is an intriguing filmmaker.
Relic is available on IFC Films.