Very spoilery article, once you’ve recovered from watching the film… (my review is here)
In many ways Relic is a classic horror film, part haunted house and part demonic possession. But it’s also about family and memories, and how dementia and ageing can snatch away that which feels most valuable to us, that we most want to hold onto, once we are old.
Plenty of horror films start well, with a sense of foreboding which grows from the tiniest scratching to thunderous disaster. Often they morph into a last act of screaming chases through darkened corridors as a creature comes for them. I actually thought watching Relic that that was how it would end, but no.
There are indeed strange corridors, dead ends and an old woman seemingly turned into a monster. But then it eased round to an ending of sorrowful tenderness. It did have me crying, that cheering acknowledgement that old wounds between mothers and daughters can be healed, and a peaceful end is possible after a terrifying decline – though there’s also something inexorable about it too, that we should prepare ourselves for the closing of the circle.
It’s also about the handing over of caring roles within a family of women: Edna’s anger at having her autonomy snatched from her now she is old; her middle-aged daughter Kay pulled back into a mess of cleaning up and old arguments, recoiling yet duty-bound; Sam made to “babysit” her grandmother, and seeing a side to Edna and Kay that she doesn’t like.
My mum had dementia (I also grew up in an allegedly haunted house but that’s for another day). Mum’s diagnosis brought with it practical problems and emotional questions, and a need to recast our relationship, even though simply being in her presence threatened to transform me back into a petulant, 15 year old door-slammer. (And in a show of solidarity with Kay, I too started looking at care homes near where I lived rather than near where my mum lived.)
Dementia is common but often hidden. Sometimes it might well feel easier to tell people you’ve suffered a demonic possession that detail the indignities and upsets of, say, Alzheimer’s. There’s nothing photogenic about it, and our reactions to it may not show us in our best light, if anyone knew. The silence around the disease is one of the reasons Relic is so frightening; it’s a disaster happening inside Edna’s house, which on the outside is still a picture of country wealth and charm.
The symptoms creep forward from trifling beginnings, eventually overwhelming Edna, who rages and trembles at what’s happening to her.
As the house starts to break down, first comes the mould, then knocking noises, and eventually Kay and Sam are crashing and crawling through holes in the walls, a demonic-looking Edna not far behind.
Initially though everything is explainable. Just as in “real life” a cascade of forgotten appointments or misplaced words can still be put down to tiredness, or simple error, with a ready list of reasons why – though in Relic they’re not the soothing ones we usually placate ourselves with when our elderly parents start to behave in entirely out-of-character ways.
The knocking could be the old house, or some kind of memory in its structure from weeks before when Jamie, the boy next door, was locked in a cupboard by Edna, who forgot they were in the middle of a game of hide and seek. His father, coming to look for him, heard the frantic banging; the inside of the closet door was covered in scratches.
Or the noises could be from Sam, who will soon be stuck behind the walls in a series of shrinking corridors and dead ends she’s never seen before, her panics and fear almost as dangerous as the situation she finds herself in.
There could even be a straightforward (ha!) supernatural explanation: Edna is convinced something got into the house weeks before, and is now hiding, breathing, under her bed.
Mould expands over the house and over Edna’s body, rotting everything before she dies; she stabs at it on her chest, like me wanting to stab my leg with a fork when I have an itchy skin reaction and my body reacts against the invader and then against itself.
A stained glass window in the house – originally from an old shack in the garden where her mentality ill great-grandfather had lived, abandoned by his family – is another reminder of the past. It too is turning black, while great grandfather, his corpse also blackened, returns in dreams. Maybe his story too must finally be acknowledged by the family.
But as everything starts crashing into each other, out-of-context memories and feelings, Edna takes to consuming then burying her memories – literally eating a photo, then digging a hole in the garden for her family albums. Anything to ensure they remain part of her, to keep hold of them before they too disappear.
They do say we all turn into our mothers eventually. After that last, heart-stopping chase through the hidden corridors, they have to knock Edna out to save themselves. Sam runs outside but her mother refuses to leave, locking the front door and gently carrying Edna upstairs (previously it had been Kay trying to run away, escaping back to Melbourne). They sit on the bed and Kay carefully pulls off Edna’s rotting skin and grey hair. It could be a horrible scene, but really it’s very moving; we seem to have lost a lot of our death rites in the West, including the idea that death can be a process rather than a singular event. Kay is stepping forward to help her mother on her way.
The new, peacefully dying Edna that emerges is no longer Edna but is still identifiably a person. Her skin is dark and shiny like leather, her head is bald.
It could be that Edna is meant to look as if she’s returning to a baby state. One of the themes of the film is the cycle of care, particularly among women in a family – Sam jokes to her mother that your mum changes your nappies then eventually you have to change hers; at one point Kay has to look under Edna’s bed to check for monsters.
Though Relic is an Australian film, and its director and co-writer, Natalie Erika James, Japanese-Australian, Edna’s final form also reminded me of the Iron Age bodies found preserved in Northern Europe’s peat bogs. Their skin has become dark and shiny, and they have no identity except that which an archeologist gives them. Even so, within that body there is broad history and personal detail, from clothes to last meals to their often-violent deaths.
To me, it’s a positive ending for Edna; she is at peace, though it could be that James is making a point of how dementia strips people of their individuality at the very end. Or maybe it’s a request that we treat people with dementia with more dignity, because she is still a person even if much of what made her Edna has been peeled away.
As Sam, Kay and Edna lie on the bed, waiting for Edna to die, Sam, lying behind her mother, notices a black bruise on Kay’s upper back. It’s a sign that Kay too will face the same journey that Edna has, that her condition is hereditary on a personal and wider level.
Relic is out in UK cinemas and on digital on 30 October, and is also screening at the London Film Festival this month. You can read my four-star review here.