Near Relic’s climax, a woman finds notes that her mother wrote to herself as she began to forget who she was. They vary in sentiment, but the most gut-wrenching note of all is a reminder that anyone who suffers from mental illness can appreciate: “I am loved.” How easily we forget that we live inside our heads. Here, there be monsters.
Relic is the feature debut of Australian director Natalie Erika James, exploring mental illness and its ripple effect throughout its subject and the loved ones affected. In this case, three generations reunite in a rural Creswick, Victoria home, with Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote and Robyn Nevin starring as Kay, Sam, and Edna, respectively. Edna is the eldest, and it’s her disappearance that prompts the reunification. As Kay and her daughter Sam investigate their missing matriarch’s whereabouts, Edna suddenly reappears. The entire family embarks on a journey into darkness as a mysterious presence invades the household and disrupts the dynamic.
The film opens with pulsating holiday lights, like so many brain synapses. A stained glass window rests in a door, depicting a hillside. Upstairs, a bathtub overflows. The water trickles down to the ground floor, threatening to touch the feet of a nude and mature woman shaking with fear. She turns toward the camera as a figure emerges in the background.
Relic features a common horror trope: the home as an extension of the psyche. Despite being set in Victoria, the house is both universal and sophisticated enough to look sinister when anything is out of place. Indeed it is: decrepit furniture and rotted food pepper the home while a frayed net sags across the backyard. As the story progresses, black mold infests the space as doubt and resentment infests the psyches of the three women. Steven Jones-Evans shines in his production design and infuses the story with spectacular atmosphere to build its dread. Shadows and uncanny natural lighting correlate to the creeping menace of dementia and the dread it prompts in those who live with it.
James’ lens is patient and observant, with crawling zooms and molasses-slow pans. The framing is often central, with key elements occluded or cut off in the frame. The camera acts as the mind’s eye, gazing upon its players in fractured glimpses. It reflects a storyteller who understands the very deceptive and refracted nature of memory, and how it heals and deceives and conspires. The drab palette of earth tones extends the theme — visions pulled from deep in the memory bank are rarely vivid in hue. James’ gaze holds long enough to make one question what’s being seen. Jump scares do occur, but they are a rare cherry on top of hard-earned dread with incremental advances towards a stellar climax. As Edna’s grip on reality slips further away, her notes to herself increase in anxiety: “My mother has green eyes,” “Don’t follow it,” “It’s here,” “GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT.” The dread-building does get repetitive; by the second act, the slow pushes down dark hallways, combined with the score’s repetitive judgment day brass cues, feel indulgent and threaten to defang the taut narrative. It’s a tall ask since the runtime is already lean at a crisp 89 minutes, but the pacing issue is, perhaps, the most natural byproduct of extending a short film (Creswick) into a feature.
The character work is what makes Relic work as well as it does. James and co-writer Christian White create a trio of tangible women with real flaws and unique arcs. On screen, they are rarely staged in harmony with each other. If one sits, another stands. If one is engaged in conversation, the other faces the wall opposite. The tensions between Kay and Sam, Sam and Edna, and Edna and Kay affect each woman differently, and a spot-on cast takes the story from compelling on the page to harrowing on the screen. Mortimer infuses every movement and mannerism of Kay’s with a tragic exhaustion, along with the sneaking fear of realizing that her brain is just as merciless as her mother’s. The result is moments of quiet mundanity that become poignant, such as Kay plinking the same piano keys over and over in an effort to regain muscle memory of a Beethoven tune.
As Edna, Nevin delivers a tempest of a performance, the lynchpin for the effective intensity of the third act. Immensely expressive, the actress can crumble egos with a single stare. Nevin’s most gut-wrenching scene has Edna burying her most precious memories (a photo album) in the woods. As Kay tries to talk her down from the mental ledge she’s wandered onto, Edna breaks down and captures the utter despair of being at the mercy of a mind that can no longer grip reality: “Maybe it’s waiting ‘till I’m weak enough, alone enough. Wish I could bury it myself, so it couldn’t get at me. I just want to go home. I just wish I could turn around and come back. I’m losing everything, Kay.”
A haunting study of Grecian prophecies and inherited mental illness, Relic makes beasts of the mind. For those of us who know, the horror of seeing a loved one slip away to the menace in their own head and body is something to be feared. But Relic has heart and wants us to be unafraid, for we are loved.
Anya Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a horror-centric columnist and film critic. Her work can be seen in Fangoria Magazine, Rue Morgue, Dread Central and Birth.Movies.Death as well as her website anyawrites.com.