Horror is an enormously broad term, and that in turn leaves horror movies a wide range of possible topics and tones to explore. Monsters, ghosts, killers, and zombie beavers are perhaps the most common terrors, but the most effective are often those that target real world concerns in our own lives. The things that make us hurt, the things that make us wail inside as our world crumbles, the things we can’t control. Relic is a new film out of Australia that appears, on its surface, to be a simple but effective little chiller, but while it succeeds mightily with a creepy atmosphere and some terrifying scares, it also ends with one of the most beautiful sequences I’ve ever seen in a horror film. In less than ninety minutes it takes you from abject terror to utter tears.
Kay (Emily Mortimer) is a busy woman, but when she gets a call that her mother has apparently gone missing she leaves the city behind and heads back to her rural Australian hometown. Her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) joins, and when the pair arrive at the house they find it undisturbed and empty of their loved one. Three days later, though, Edna (Robyn Nevin) returns with dirtied feet, a harried look, and no apparent memory of where she’s been. The elderly woman is suffering from dementia, and as her daughter and granddaughter struggle with this reality they discover something else has targeted the family as well — and it’s in the walls of the place they call home.
Relic is as efficient and effective a nightmare as you’ll find that pulls you in, reveals the lay of the land, and then begins to squeeze. Natalie Erika James makes her feature directorial debut here, and she shows an immediate grasp of genre expectations while refusing to accept its supposed limitations. The film, co-written with Christian White, packs numerous scares, eerie silences, and a terrifyingly adrenalized third-act into a relatively short running time, and while that alone makes for a terrific horror experience it goes the additional mile of infusing it all with a devastatingly real emotion.
This family of three is almost the entirety of the cast, and their characters come clear in short order through smart writing and recognizably human performances. They’re our elderly parents, our children — ourselves. Kay’s guilt and regrets are our own, as are Sam’s feelings of anger towards what she sees as unfair. They love Edna, but as eerie occurrences mount and the old woman’s behavior grows more frightening the inclination to run becomes overwhelming. Both Mortimer and Heathcote do tremendously good work expressing their internal dilemma adding new wrinkles into the typical horror premise that usually leaves only the option of getting the hell away as fast as you can. But how do you run away when it’s your loved one who terrifies you?
Edna’s dementia will hit close to home for some viewers, but while it’s never played with an eye towards exploitation (looking at you M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit) the horror is no less tangible or striking for it. Glimpses of shadows, a creepy beat involving a sleepwalking Edna, and a building ferocity make this a truly terrifying watch, but the heart remains. When I was a child my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and quickly began to deteriorate. She stayed with us for a short while, and I can still hear — decades later — the terrifyingly guttural howls that came from her room in the middle of the night. The disease was eating away at her memories and awareness, and it was leaving fear in its wake, both within her and within those around her. As a kid I was too confused and scared to find a way around it, but as an adult I wish I had taken the time to be there for her increasingly rare moments of lucidity. Relic is a hauntingly beautiful reminder to do just that.
That’s just part of the brilliance behind James’ film as she balances the horror with the humanity. Cinematographer Charlie Sarroff captures the house’s insides with an eye for both familiarity and distrust as the home they thought they knew becomes less certain and safe, and the film’s scares benefit from that growing unease. The house, once a place of warmth and love, is shifting towards an eternal night marked by old bones bending in the moonlight, and as the dread builds and the mystery peels away we’re left with an inevitable truth — most of us will lose our parents during our lifetime, and the unlucky among us will watch them suffer and shrink before our eyes as the light goes out in theirs. People we once saw as big, bright, and invulnerable will become none of those things, and the knowledge will haunt us even as we try not to realize that it’ll happen to us someday too.
Relic is an anguished cry to hold our loved ones close before the unavoidable darkness, and if that sounds heavy, well, it’s horrifyingly so. If you have a personal connection to the film’s themes and characters, or if you’re open to feeling empathy, the film’s conclusion will wreck you in a myriad of ways. Happily, it’s also a kick-ass horror film with a wonderfully realized execution that will have you nervously smiling from fear as each movement, each sound, and each step brings you closer to the end.