I couldn’t obtain a screener of Relic, so I strapped into a hazmat suit — okay, maybe a bit less than that — and traipsed to the next county to see my first movie in a theater since the lockdown. It’s currently playing at the Film Alley in Weatherford, the Premiere Cinemas in Burleson, and various streaming services. I thought about the other movies I’ve seen under duress in my time, suffering from terrible (non-contagious) diseases, lack of food, lack of sleep, and a bout of sciatica so bad that I had to lie face-down on the auditorium floor to see the film. From those experiences, I know that a good movie will make me forget any of those. This disquieting Australian horror film was plenty good enough to keep my mind off the piece of fabric over my face.
The story picks up at a secluded, handsomely appointed three-story house in the hinterlands, whose elderly owner Edna (Robyn Nevin) appears to have wandered off. Her professional daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and university dropout granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive in from Melbourne to set the house in order and participate in the manhunt. Edna turns up on her own with nary a hint of where she’s been and a black bruise on her chest that looks like the black mold spreading through the house. In her lucid moments, Gran is adamant about living by herself on a property that has been in the family for generations. However, she calls Sam by her mother’s name several times, and then Kay finds the old woman in the forest eating old photographs. It’s hard to ignore Gran’s possession of a big knife that she uses to carve free-form wax candles.
This is the first feature directed by Natalie Erika James, who plumbs an aspect of horror cinema that many people overlook. Countless filmmakers have used old people to deliver creepy warnings, but this one reckons with the horror of senile dementia, which takes vibrant human beings and robs them of everything that makes them who they are. Kay and Sam struggle to keep up with Gran’s mercurial moods and her lapses in memory. Late in the film, Sam becomes stuck in a labyrinth of passages within the walls of the house. What makes this sequence remarkable is how it acts as a potent metaphor for dementia itself, as Sam breaks through walls to discover entranceless rooms, and hallways are choked with stacks of Edna’s belongings from her previous life. That damn black mold gets all over everything, too, and seems to be growing before our eyes.
Horror fans could fault the film for taking too long to unleash the scares, but once the old lady definitively turns on her descendants, it’s more than frightening enough. Kay and Sam are helplessly bound to the person who’s trying to kill them, and the film’s final sequence offers an indelible image of decay. The younger women realize that the decline that is the fate of all mortal things is coming for them, too, just like it’s coming for us. The world outside the movie theater is already a reminder of that, but Relic may just bring it home in a unique way.
Starring Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, and Bella Heathcote. Directed by Natalie Erika James. Written by Natalie Erika James and Christian White. Rated R.