Some say that time heals all wounds, but that’s a lie. Time doesn’t heal; it reshapes. As the years pass, wounds morph into new perspectives and sometimes alter into vague memories or forgetfulness altogether. However, that metamorphosis does not necessarily engender a mending. The degree of pain may fluctuate, but some wounds simply do not heal if the wound is severe enough. Japanese-Australian writer/director Natalie Erika James explores the transformational toll that time and generational trauma has on the physical, mental, and emotional body among three related women with her debut feature, the horror film Relic.
The film’s opening shot is one of overwhelming stillness and silence, like the calm before a storm. Christmas lights flash on and off inside a darkened home; water from the bathtub overruns, flowing down the stairwell while an elderly woman, naked and frozen still, stands alone. This sad yet eerie image perfectly sets the tone of Relic, which is filled with a menacing type of melancholy and fear that will resonate with many viewers.
Kay (Emily Mortimer) is notified by the police that her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) is missing. Despite their fragmented relationship, Kay is concerned and brings her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) with her to Edna’s secluded home in hopes of finding her. Unsure what to do and where to search, Kay and Sam spend most of their time sorting through Edna’s belongings looking for clues to her whereabouts. Cryptic post-its are sprinkled throughout the house with sentences like “don’t follow it”. There seems to be no indication of foul play despite the addition of a strange lock on Edna’s back door. After a few days, Edna reappears, and her behavior grows increasingly erratic. Edna’s relationship with Sam fluctuates on a whim, drastically shifting from sweet and sentimental to violent and angry. All the while, Edna’s house itself seems to be hiding its own secrets. The house is filled with echoing groans and dark stains that spread like vines across the walls. Kay and Sam are forced to face the harsh realities of Edna’s condition for better or worse in a generational story of trauma, strength, and love.
James possesses a clear vision with her storytelling and has a natural flair for capturing a menacing, atmospheric tone. Smooth camera work, atypical shots, and erratically shaky images through flashback sequences portray the emotional spectrum of one losing their memory, and eventual sanity. The screenplay is a personal one for James, as it was inspired by a visit to Japan to see her grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s. In a statement offered to press, James discloses that her grandmother’s inability to recognize her was difficult to swallow and “at a certain level, it felt worse than death- to see your loved one progressively lose parts of themselves, and slowly become a stranger.”
This sentiment is perfectly captured in the physical structure of Edna’s home as it is a direct reflection of her corporeal collapse. The stains that proliferate throughout the home are reminiscent of an invasive deterioration of the mind as memories become as decayed as the walls themselves. Kay and Sam’s pain of seeing Edna’s condition swells and overflows like the water in Edna’s bathtub, unleashing a dizzying array of emotions that each of the women grapple to process.
Production Designer Steven Jones-Evans beautifully and horribly utilizes aged household decor throughout the film. Rooms are neglected, boxes of random belongings are stacked and line the hallways, and a pile of unanswered mail begins to tower by the door. The dilapidated environment, accompanied by the house’s hidden labyrinthine chamber of secret passages, are an astute metaphor for the inner workings of Edna’s deteriorating mind. The production design is therefore all the more terrifying and somber. These relatable visuals are a wise choice as opposed to a whimsical, Tim Burton-esque set design. The house itself is as haunted as the women who inhabit it and their love for one another is thickly layered like the dust covering Edna’s furniture. Cinematographer Charlie Sarroff further complements the production design by applying impressive shadow work and utilizing darkness as Edna’s behavior begins to spiral.
While Relic is a haunted house movie in its own right, it radiates an emotional weight on par with films such as Don’t Look Now, The Babadook, and Hereditary. Mortimer delivers a robust performance filled with regret, concern, and anguish as Kay looks for and after Edna. Her resiliency is heart-warming, but also exhausting in her attempt to save her family. On the other hand, Nevin delivers a frightfully fierce performance as Edna. Her silence arouses tension and mystery surrounding the details of her affliction. Edna’s presence on screen is subtly menacing before becoming increasingly untamed to the point of arousing savage fear. Heathcote’s curiously innocent demeanor as Sam serves as a buffer between the strained mother-daughter dynamic of Edna and Kay. Each actress delivers a heartwarming and heartbreaking performance which allows the conclusion to their family affliction at the end of the film to be refreshingly open to interpretation.
Although there is not much extensive backstory in its 89 minute runtime, flashback sequences to a secluded cabin and a decayed corpse haunt Kay throughout the film. However, there is not an intense dive into her childhood or broken history with Edna beyond these images and an heirloom stained glass window that seems to have an impact on the home. While the details are skimmed, the emotional impact is not affected. Editors Denise Haratzis and Sean Lahiff cut the visuals extremely in a sinister fashion and opt out of cheap jump scares, while the practical special effects provide impressively gruesome body horror.
Natalie Erika James’ debut doesn’t just tug at the heart, Relic wraps around it and steadily sinks its teeth into it. The screenplay, co-written by James and Christian White, successfully reshapes the haunted house story and captures the crippling effect of time passed with a sinister slow-burn. While the film itself is about loss, James is clearly one gifted director that audiences will not be able to forget.
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