Even in a “normal” year, this past weekend would be considered an exceptionally good weekend for new movies. In no particular order: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and J.K. Simmons being utterly delightful in Palm Springs; First Cow, the best movie of the year (imo); Tom Hanks in Peak Dad Mode in Greyhound; Charlize Theron as an immortal warrior in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard; and future Best Original Screenplay winner Money Plane, starring Money Plane as Money Plane. There was also an indie horror movie that didn’t receive as much attention as, say, Kelsey Grammer calling himself the “baddest mother f*cker on the planet,” which, fair, but it’s still worth a rental.
Relic follows Kay (played by Emily Mortimer, a.k.a. “I have hollow bones, like a bird” from 30 Rock), who, along with her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), travels from Melbourne to rural Australia to check in on her elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin), only to discover that she hasn’t been seen or heard from in days. The mystery isn’t whether Kay’s mother/Sam’s grandmother will come back — that’s settled quickly; the real question is where she’s been and why her body is covered in a black bruise that resembles the mold that’s spreading throughout her house. Not to get all They Came Together on you, but in Relic, it’s almost like the house is another character in the movie. It’s a gorgeous dwelling, surrounded by woods and a small shack on the grounds, but it’s also rotting from the inside with small thumps heard within walls in cluttered rooms. It’s unsettling.
Director Natalie Erika James, who developed the script with co-writer Christian White, conceived Relic from “a personal place but taken to the highest supernatural extreme.” Her grandmother “had Alzheimer’s for some time. It was definitely drawing on things that I observed in her, feelings of guilt about not seeing her more often which probably led to the shift in dynamic within the family.” That’s clear in her film, which tells an old-fashioned haunted house story while slowly revealing the fractured dynamics between the three generations of women, including Edna and Sam after she proposes to live with her grandmother, only for the family matriarch to forget about the offer and violently accuse her granddaughter of stealing from her. And that’s before we follow Edna as she travels into the woods to eat family photos and bury the remaining memories in the ground to protect them from something within the house. There’s an obvious metaphor at play in Relic (my “I see what’s happening here” moment came about midway through), but it doesn’t take away from the pervasive creepiness of the film. Especially during the tender-if-disturbing climax, which will stick with you for some time.
Not everything about the film works (it’s occasionally too slow), but that unsettling feeling of pure dread and that around every corner of the house lies something nightmarish is what Relic does better than any other horror movie I’ve seen so far this year. There are no cheap jump scares or murderous clowns. The tension comes from every creak of the labyrinthine house, every bump and scrap and fingernail scratches on the door, and watching a loved one suffering from dementia forget themselves and those closest to them. Relic is genuinely unnerving because it understands something many other horror movies don’t: that there’s nothing scarier than the human mind.
Relic is available via VOD now. Watch the trailer below.