Relic: A Beautiful Haunting
Having now experienced her directorial debut, Relic, I am now as excited to follow the burgeoning career of Australian Natalie Erika James as I was Ari Aster's, after his frighteningly effective Hereditary in 2018. Relic is meticulously calibrated in its pacing and manages to strike a balance between heart-rending storytelling and heart-thumping thrills.
Kay (Emily Mortimer, sporting a near-flawless Australian accent) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) travel to the home of Kay's mother Edna (Robyn Nevin, giving some major Lin Shaye/Deanna Dunagan vibes), apparently somewhere outside Melbourne. Edna has gone missing and the neighbours haven't heard from her in a couple of days. Kay and Sam start searching the house and surrounds for clues to her whereabouts, and it becomes quite clear that something isn't right. When Edna suddenly materialises again, seemingly with no acknowledgement that she was ever gone, that feeling only intensifies. What unfolds is a stunning analogy of the insidiousness of dementia that also happens to double as an excellent haunted house film in its own right, made all the more effective by its sincere emotional punch.
The central performances from the three women are equally convincing. It is a credit to both their acting chops and the strength of the writing that we learn so much of their backstory from their silences. There are moments of tension and unease from unasked questions and piercing stares. We gain tremendous insight into each of the three generations by what they choose not to say to each other, and it's this restraint that makes their fleetingly overt communication so much more powerful. Emily Mortimer is a typically strong anchor that reluctantly acts as a bridge between a granddaughter who thinks they should be doing more for a grandmother who wishes they would do less. Robyn Nevin delivers a masterclass in extracting both our sympathy and fear in rapid succession. With the use of one simple question, she provides a small but devastating window of insight into what it must be like to watch a loved one lose themselves - "where is everyone?" - seconds after she's caught eating photographs.
The tone and aesthetic are lovingly evocative of some notable influences, while somehow remaining wholly original in their execution. The colour palette and overall griminess made it difficult for me not to be reminded of Osgood Perkins' 2016 divisive slow-burn I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House and the 2007 debut from Spanish director J.A. Bayona, The Orphanage. There are also echoes of Darren Aronofsky's 2017 mother! and Mark Z. Danielewski's intimidating novel, House of Leaves, both of which also feature houses as central characters that seem to breathe and change the rules. Narratively, it's also not much of a stretch to find comparison with Aster's Hereditary and Jennifer Kent's 2014 break-out success The Babadook, which both use familial grief and the minutiae of domestic life to ignite their horror stories. As he did for David Slade's criminally underrated 2007 zombie flick 30 Days of Night, composer Brian Reitzell turns in another electronic companion, transitioning seamlessly from heightened, frenetic panic to understated pulses, while also knowing exactly when to mind his own business and shut up.
The most gratifying aspect of James's Relic is the way it pays homage to its impressive lineage of spiritual predecessors (intentionally or not) with one hand, while simultaneously ducking and weaving through a minefield of horror movie tropes with the other, without ever feeling predictable. On a number of occasions, I made audible groans of approval at the way in which she subverted my expectations or put a fresh twist on a stale scare. In one brilliant moment, the soft, vacuum-packed plastic on a coat in a wardrobe seems to breathe of its own volition. Relic is the antithesis of a jump scare marathon. Often, all the information you need to make you jump is already there on the screen, and James makes you search every corner of it yourself. It takes a lot to get under my skin these days, but Relic burrowed its way in there very early on and kept my heart-rate elevated for the duration. In one of the most masterful moments of the whole film, Edna asks Kay to check under her bed. This might be the first Check Under The Bed scene that has ever gotten to me.
For a film that starts out telling such a delicate family story, it initially seems more suitably categorised as a mystery or drama, or maybe even a thriller at a push. However, the final third kicks into overdrive and goes (for want of a better word) absolutely bonkers in a way that genuinely surprised me. I was initially skeptical that James was going to be able to sustain the crescendo and nail the climax she had meticulously and painstakingly committed to throughout the first two acts, but, in my mind, she absolutely delivered. The final sequence is likely where some moviegoers looking for a fright-fest will feel it misses the mark. I found the conclusion unexpectedly poignant and a fitting end to a journey that always implied there was more beneath the surface. Never preachy in its analogousness, Relic is a challenging, exciting watch with a painful, important message and the most impressive Australian film I've seen in years.
Relic is streaming on Stan now.