Premise: A daughter, mother and grandmother are haunted by a manifestation of dementia that consumes their family’s home.
Relic, the feature debut from writer/director Natalie Erika James, takes the fragility and fear of caring for a mentally ailing loved one and packages it into an overall enticing thriller with the effectiveness and confidence of a seasoned filmmaker. By focusing on the struggles of caring for a relative, Relic allows its audience to grow attached to its characters before suddenly ratcheting up the tension and suspense in more conventional ways. And although James deftly guides the audience through the family drama at Relic‘s center, the conventional feel of the climax does leave a bit to be desired before successfully ending the film on a disturbing and thought-provoking note.
The film begins with Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) traveling to Kay’s mother’s house. Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) has gone missing and left behind post-it notes strewn about the house that allude to her rapidly deteriorating mental state due to dementia. Relic establishes the fraught emotional state of the family fairly well. The pressure of not knowing where Edna is nor why she left gives plenty of narrative propulsion to the film’s first act. But it’s not until Edna returns that things get particularly harrowing in the family drama department.
While other genre films have struggled with depicting dementia and other disorders (M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, for example), Edna’s deteriorating mental state in Relic is depicted in earnest and given the proper respect and care. Unlike The Visit, the ongoing confusion and loss of mental dexterity that Edna experiences isn’t a plot mechanic for thrills or cheap scares. Instead, the film utilizes it to explore the hardship and struggle that the family endures as a result of Edna’s condition. This makes the third act switch to a more conventional haunting movie carry more emotional weight, despite taking the film into more lackluster territory.
As impressive as Relic is from a character development standpoint, once it switches gears into a haunted house story (of sorts), it becomes almost an entirely different movie. The tone and general atmosphere in this portion of the film is engrossing and pays off the goodwill of the first two acts well enough. But there is simply not enough done in Relic‘s third act to separate the film from the endless other haunting/possession movies that have saturated the horror genre for decades. It becomes a relatively standard thriller and when we get to the denouement, it feels like the climax was almost irrelevant.
Fortunately, the film ends strong in the aforementioned denouement. In the end, Relic transitions out of the haunting/possession story to return to the strong family dynamic of its first 2/3s. It leaves audiences on a bleak and profound note about familial obligation and acceptance of the characters’ roles within their family dynamic. It’s disturbing and thought-provoking all the same.
Even though it takes a couple of missteps along the way, Relic is a solid horror film with a strong family dynamic at its center. Although the film’s emotional and familial horror may pale in comparison to heavy hitters in the same vein like Hereditary, Relic holds its own as a capable genre film in its own right. Above all, Relic is an impressive debut feature from Natalie Erika James, who is sure to have a bright future ahead of her.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.