For years, The Conjuring Universe has been tying itself up in knots trying to imbue inanimate objects such as dolls and paintings with portent to middling degrees of success. Relic, the debut feature from Japanese-Australian filmmaker Natalie Erika James, manages to make a single pane of stained glass the scariest item in the world without feeling the need to have it jump out of the frame and crawl menacingly towards the camera. James’ arresting, emotional and attention-grabbing film, which she co-wrote with regular collaborator Christian White, understands that what’s most frightening is barely glimpsed and feels disarmingly normal. There’s no need for spooky nuns when the very fabric of reality has shifted under the unimaginable weight of grief.
Relic opens with an artistically overflowing bathtub, always a bad omen in horror, which sets the scene for the subsequent employment of several classic genre tropes, none of which feel in any way derivative. It’s soon revealed that Edna (Robin Nevin), mother to Kay (Emily Mortimer) and grandmother to Sam (Bella Heathcote), flooded her house the previous Christmas due to an ongoing battle, presumably with dementia (it’s never made explicit, which adds to the film’s oozing dread). Although Kay thinks it’s time to put Edna in a home, Sam is more empathetic and even suggests moving in with her beloved grandmother to help out.
Then, Edna goes missing and is presumed dead. Again, though, nobody actually manages to say as much out loud. At first, it seems like Relic will simply lumber Kay and Sam with clearing out Edna’s old house and uncovering the horrors within, but the movie swerves when she reappears as though nothing has happened. The woman is clearly behaving strangely, but — because of her age and debilitating mental state — it’s easy for Kay in particular to rationalize everything away. The search takes a visible toll on her, as she confesses to Sam “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing.” But when Kay’s mother returns, the sense of relief is short-lived.
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Both of the mother-daughter relationships at the dark heart of Relic are strained. Kay feels guilty for having her own life in the city, evidenced by her interaction with a nosy cop who demands to know why she hasn’t spoken to her mother in a few weeks. Likewise, her daughter usually refers to her as “Kay” rather than “Mum,” and it’s obvious Sam’s own life choices haven’t exactly filled her with pride. Mortimer and Heathcote are well cast in the roles; they look kind of alike, their similarly angular features twist to express the anguish and confusion of gradually losing a family member to an unfathomable disease. Mortimer spends most of Relic looking as though she’s on the verge of tears, but she only actually breaks down once (in her car, away from prying eyes). Kay’s veneer of keeping it together cracks along with the house itself.
Edna’s home, where Kay grew up and Sam has surely spent plenty of time over the years, is creepy and filled with dark corners, but it also feels homely and lived in. The tinkle of piano keys, the groove in the carpet where a table leg has rested forever, and the delicately cut but undeniably strange-looking candle sculptures Edna makes all contribute to a feeling of comfortable decay. There are lots of mirrors, too, the presence of which plays on the idea of identity and the trauma inherited from our parents, as each of the three women are photographed standing behind each other at various points in the movie. Meanwhile, the old house creaks almost constantly, but are they just normal noises or is there a presence?
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James wisely leaves the answer vague, one could argue, right up until the simultaneously moving and highly disconcerting ending, which employs some wonderfully gruesome practical SFX. Her film is elegantly constructed, its horrors are equally well-observed. There are several “don’t go in there!” moments, and an interaction with a neighbourhood kid who’s now too afraid to cross the threshold into the house is blood-curdling, even before the reason why is revealed. A lengthy sojourn in a labyrinthine passage is sweatily claustrophobic, with the light from a smartphone (the only extended use of one in the whole movie) making the space feel as though it’s crawling with evil spirits. The house appears to be rotting from the inside, much like Edna herself, but mold has never been this scary. By refusing to explain what’s actually going on, James makes every inch of the place imposing.
Relic actually boasts several relics, from the aforementioned pane of glass, taken from a property with its own dark history, to a ring Edna gifts to Sam, and even the house itself. The film is about the nature of memory and how it becomes twisted as we get older. There’s a trio of terrific but very different performances at its heart and, crucially, Nevin — the oldest of the three — is given plenty to do as things escalate, which is heartening to see considering actresses are typically put out to pasture after the age of 30. By focusing on the relationship between three generations of women, Relic imbues its story with an essentially feminist feel that’s echoed behind the camera, too, with a predominantly female crew. The addition of Jake Gyllenhaal and the Russo brothers as producers will surely bring Relic to the attention of a larger audience, but it should be appreciated first and foremost as a sharp study of grief and how women in particular compartmentalize trauma and hurt for the betterment of everyone else.
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When forced to stay in one place and confront their feelings, Edna, Kay and Sam react in entirely different ways befitting their ages and life experience, as well as the mercurial nature of grief. At their core, then, Relic’s trio of women are bonded by their shared trauma, which is more destructive than any paranormal entity.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.