What haunts in Relic, the debut feature film written and directed by Natalie Erika James, is something sinister, but also something essentially unseen and, therefore, all the more terrifying. A horror film much more concerned with the weight of strained relationships and the scary potential to lose oneself without an anchor, a mooring to latch onto, James creates a moody, personal intergenerational story with just enough bite to make it hurt.
Emily Mortimer (Mary Poppins Returns) stars as Kay, called back to her aging mother’s home in rural Australia when Edna (Robyn Nevin) inexplicably goes missing. Kay and her grown daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) find Edna’s large home left essentially untouched, as if the elderly woman simply vanished in the course of a normal day. Kay makes a report to the local police, and while they wait for news, she and Sam find odd notes left around the house, Edna reminding herself of things she’s forgetting in her old age. The house itself has seen better days, black mold and shadows seeping into every dank corner of a home much too big for one little old lady. As Kay and Sam investigate Edna’s disappearance, James wastes no time in establishing the tension inherent to the situation; the women half expect to see Edna pop up around every corner, behind every closed door.
And then one day, she does. As mysteriously as she vanished, she’s back again and insisting nothing’s wrong. Kay calls in a doctor, whose only order is that Edna not be left alone for the foreseeable future, just to be safe. It’s at about this point that it occurred to me that except for the next door neighbors we meet briefly, James has written an entirely female-driven script, from the three women at its center to the doctor to the woman who shows Kay around the retirement home where she’s thinking of moving Edna. The filmmaker doesn’t make any specific effort to call attention to this fact, but there it is: a sharp, brooding thriller built around women.
With Edna home, Sam begins to bond with her grandmother, even offering to move in with her in the big old house rather than see her sent to a facility. At first, Edna seems fine, no worse for wear after her disappearance. But soon, she’s more and more forgetful, disoriented in her own home; one minute, she’s offering Sam her wedding band as a family heirloom and the next, she’s aggressively yanking it off her granddaughter’s finger, accusing her of stealing it. All is not right for Edna, and much as Sam hopes for the best, Kay can see things deteriorating quickly. And as it does, James finds her way from relationship drama to actual horror in a stealth transition with the help of Brian Reitzell’s restless score pulsing just below the surface.
By the final act, Relic is fully committed to its genre, as Sam encounters firsthand a scary mystery about the house and Kay sees her mother fully transformed into something nearly unrecognizable. All the buildup James invested in her characters at the outset pays off, as its the connection we have to all three of them that makes their fates that much more meaningful. Kay struggles with the guilt that comes with pursuing a life away from home, away from the ones you love. Sam is searching for a connection to her history, to the generations of women that came before her. And Edna, facing the end of her life alone, is more vulnerable than anyone to the Other that’s living in the walls and consuming anything that crosses its path. By building the film’s frights around the role each of these women inhabit in their relationship to the other, James creates a thriller that finds its scariest moments in both visceral and emotional ways.