A daughter, mother and grandmother are haunted by a manifestation of dementia that consumes their family’s home.
There are post-it notes stuck all around Edna’s elegant and airy house, little reminders of basic living: turn off taps says one. As they get more frightening, warnings in an increasingly spidery hand, there’s one that says Don’t follow it. Initially I thought that like the other notes it was a message to herself, this time referencing a malevolent presence she fears is in the house with her; but it could just as easily be a plea to her middle-aged daughter Kay to keep her distance and save herself.
Relic takes place in an outwardly serene and beautiful family home, a home that inside is corroding. Strange knocking reverberates within the walls and black mould encroaches on everything.
Central to this is Edna (Robyn Nevin), who is in her 80s and has been living alone. But the neighbours have reported her missing, and Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), alerted by the local police, drive up from Melbourne to look for her.
Kay is cagey about when she last spoke to her mum, eventually being pinned down by the detective to “a few weeks” ago which probably means about three months.
A few days later Edna reappears in the kitchen as if nothing is wrong, entirely lucid, annoyed at being babied, though the doctor demands she not be left alone for a few days. She also enquires about a huge black bruise across Edna’s chest, but Edna says she must have knocked herself.
Back at the house the sheen of normality is increasingly interrupted by odd incidents and flaring rages. And as the roles of mother and daughter are reversed, Edna fears there’s a monster under her bed. Every now and then they flip back – “I’m still your mother, Kay,” Edna remonstrates – but still the mould spreads and the black bruise grows.
A study of ageing and dementia and its effects on a family, Relic is an unnerving – and often upsetting – maelstrom of dislocation, fear and anger on all sides when faced with a body and a mind dying in fits and starts.
It’s an exceptional first feature from director and co-writer Natalie Erika James, and an often devastating watch. The eerie build-up gives way to growing horror, before an ending that is as bold and unflinching as it is heartfelt.
James weaves her haunted house horror story, its allegories of a life and its memories being torn apart, into the actual realities of living when one’s memory is fading. Sometimes they merge: Kay comes across her mum standing where her neat, clipped garden meets the wilder woods, literally eating photographs before burying the family albums to keep them safe.
The baton of caregiver passes between Edna, Kay and Sam with everyone trying to work out new roles, though no one really understands this lonely journey in uncharted waters. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing,” says Kay in a moment of vulnerability to Sam, though what she seems to want most is to get Edna to a pleasant nursing home in Melbourne, with different treatments and wellness options to smooth over her path to the end and make her smell nice while she’s going.
The horror starts with that mould, not unusual in a house where the elderly occupant needs a note to remind her to turn off the bath taps. Then the knocking starts but all old houses with walls filled with old pipes creak. Elegant, tidy rooms give way to increasingly junk-filled floors, but there’s a lifetime of stuff to house.
Edna’s home is a metaphor for her own body, and while parts of it rot, other areas remain elegant, a face to the world. Relationships within its confines are turned upside down; she even rages at Sam, when usually the best relations within a family are between those who have another generation in between.
Eventually the horrors become unexplainable, though James expertly creates a sense of revulsion and prison-like claustrophobia well before we get to the flies and the tomb-like boxes with the walls closing in. It seems to be always raining outside, and everyone in the house is suffering from a bad case of big-lights-off-itis, until an overflowing bath fuses the electrics anyway. They can’t see a way out and the past is breaking through, not smoothly but randomly.
What Relic does so brilliantly is show the jagged nature of decline, which is not a serene glide from life to death but often a frightening, disjointed unravelling. The past intrudes, but only in bits; and there’s a shattering of order, of who cares for whom, a collapsing structure of a life that was previously lived in easily measured and delineated stages.
James builds up the tension using recognisable horror ideas and visuals before twisting them into something that we don’t want to recognise, then bringing it so terrifyingly close we can’t pretend it isn’t real.
Occasionally another character appears, serving to highlight the destruction within the house hardly seen from outside. Jamie (Chris Bunton), the 18 year old boy next door who has Down Syndrome, and is now too scared to come into the house; his father; a policeman determining what Edna has been doing and where.
But for most of its running time, this is a horror story unfolding between three women bound together. The performances are wonderful: Mortimer perfectly highlights the conflicts within Kay as her longing for freedom, and her antipathy and then terror at Edna’s transformation, battle with duty and love. Nevin is superb: frightened, uncomprehending, imperious almost to the end.
Relic is showing as part of the London Film Festival this month. It’s then released in the UK in cinemas and on digital on 30 October 2020.
Read my (very spoilery) article, Relic: it’s coming from inside the house!
Watch the trailer now: