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A state of decay
When an elderly woman disappears, her daughter and adult granddaughter investigate and begin to suspect that her house has become host to dark forces in RELIC the unnerving and emotionally affecting debut feature from Natalie Erika James. In his latest capsule review from this year's London Film Festival, Slarek is tensed up by the horror and takes a personal hit from the film's powerful allegorical subtext.
  “I started writing Relic when I was [in Japan] visiting my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s, and on this trip, it was the first time she couldn’t remember who I was. It made me think about the ways in which, over time, her relationship with my mother and me had shifted.”
  Writer-director Natalie Erika James interviewed in The Guardian*


Horror has a proud history of subtextual social and political commentary, from the satire on consumerism in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead to the barbed pokes at America’s ruling class in Brian Yuzna’s Society. One of the strongest examples in recent years has to be Australian director Jennifer Kent’s belting debut feature, The Babadook, whose finale only really makes complete sense when viewed in allegorical terms, and then it genuinely knocks you for six. It’s a film that refreshingly kicked against the genre norm by having both a female director and female lead character who was never reliant on a princess-rescuing male step in at the crucial moment and save the day. Six years later, the debut feature of Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James ups the ante with three female protagonists and follows Kent’s example by consigning the male characters to minor roles and strongly underscoring its surface horror with social commentary, this time an emotionally affecting exploration of dementia, loneliness and the bonds of family love.

It starts in unsettling fashion, as the picture fades in and out in time with the blinking lights of a Christmas tree and the heartbeat throb of a sinister bass note on the soundtrack. A bath overflows and the water snakes across the floor and down the stairs like a creature in search of its prey, which it eventually locates in the form of an elderly woman, who standing almost naked in what appears to be a trance, which she then stirs from to turn and look behind her in fear. The woman’s name is Edna (Robyn Nevin), and in the very next shot her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and adult granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) are shown driving to her distantly located house in response to a call from the local police that she hasn’t been seen for several days. When Kay and Sam arrive they find no trace of Edna. What they do find is not exactly comforting, a bowl of rotted fruit suggesting she’s been gone for a while, there appear to be newly installed locks on some of the doors. From the moment Kay and Sam step enter the abode there’s a sense of sinister foreboding to almost every step they take and every room they enter. Their initial exploration is littered with creepy moments, the most quietly effective of which sees a plastic dust cover on a coat almost imperceptibly inflate and deflate as if it is gently breathing, but when the startled Sam pulls the clothing aside, all she sees is curiously patterned area of mould at the base of the wall behind.

Robyn Nevin as Edna in Relic

That evening Sam is outside of the house when she is approached by Jamie (Chris Bunton), the son of distantly located next-door neighbour Alex (Jeremy Stanford) and someone she clearly was friends with as a child. They chat in friendly fashion, but when Sam invites Jamie in he seems oddly hesitant and politely takes his leave. Sam then heads back inside, where Kay reveals that Edna told her several weeks ago that she thought that someone was coming into the house. She chose not to tell the police about this due to her conviction that it was a delusional symptom of Edna’s growing dementia, evidence of which can be found in the shape of notes left around her house to remind her to complete simple tasks such as turning off the tap or flushing the toilet. Sam is startled by Kay’s revelation, and I have to admit that I was too. I mean, the woman’s disappeared, and while she’s clearly been getting a bit forgetful, her own daughter didn’t think this might be just a little bit relevant? Given how much else the film gets right I’m going to give that a pass, and what it says about Kay’s views on her mother’s mental health has real relevance later. A pissed-off Sam then goes to her bedroom and puts on one of her grandmother’s cardigans for warmth, and in one of a string of nice little touches that pepper the film, she briefly sniffs the material to catch just a whiff of her absent relative. When she digs into the pockets, however, she finds one of Edna’s reminder notes bearing the sinister and capitalised warning, “DON’T FOLLOW IT.” Say, what? That night Kay is disturbed by unidentified banging from what sounds like the inside of a living room wall, on which another patch of that dark mould is now growing. When she lies down with Sam to sleep, a shadow passes over her and an unidentified hand gently touches her face. The next morning she and Sam wake to find Edna in the kitchen making tea as if she’s never been away.

How the film unfolds from here is not for me to reveal, but it continues down the increasingly disquieting path set up in its first act, with troubling discoveries made by Kay and Sam and erratic behaviour on Edna’s part giving weight to Kay’s conviction that her mental faculties are in decline. It’s this aspect of the story that gives the film its subtextual bite, as Edna’s seemingly increasing inability to cope triggers very different responses in Kay and Sam. As Kay talks about moving her mother into care, Sam drops a reminder that is true to my heart and my own experience, asking rhetorically, “Isn’t that how it works? Your mum changes your nappies and then you change hers?” As Kay takes a few hours to return to Melbourne and check out a premium care home the following morning, Sam talks to Edna about moving in with her, but is soon given cause to question this decision.

Relic continues to develop as a horror work and often effectively so, making good on a couple of well-worn tropes and some J-Horror borrowings by way of James’s confident handling, never hurrying the pace and dispensing with jump-scares (hoorah!) to focus instead on creeping us out and getting under our skin (and for those who’ve seen the film, I apologise for what may seem a clumsy pun). The internal logic of a couple of elements could probably be called into question, but as it was with Amelia in The Babadook, it’s in Kay’s emotional arc that the film’s real strength lies. It’s a journey that really gets under way with her tearful breakdown after visiting the care home and that comes to a head in an allegorically extraordinary final scene, one whose underlying commentary on the nature of unquestioning inter-generational love hit me so hard and stirred so many memories that I was wiping away tears. Aided considerably by some excellent sound design, Charlie Sarroff’s moody scope cinematography, Brian Reitzell’s suggestive score and a trio of first-rate central performances, it’s a seriously impressive debut from a director whose second feature I now await with eager anticipation.



BFI London Film Festival 2020 logo
Relic poster

Australia | USA 2020
89 mins
directed by
Natalie Erika James
produced by
Jake Gyllenhaal
Riva Marker
Anna McLeish
Sarah Shaw
written by
Natalie Erika James
Christian White
Charlie Sarroff
Denise Haratzis
Sean Lahiff
Brian Reitzell
production design
Steven Jones-Evans
Emily Mortimer
Robyn Nevin
Bella Heathcote
Jeremy Stanford
Chris Bunton

LFF screening dates
9 October 2020
12 October 2020
review posted
7 October 2020

See all of Slarek's reviews