Relic Review: James crafts a horrifying debut filled with skin-crawling body horror and dizzying dementia
Boasting an unsettling story of dementia, bone-chilling body horror, and a trio of great performances, the feature directorial debut of Natalie Erika James, Relic, is an unnerving, slow-burning nightmare.
Clearly being a feature adaptation of her 2017 short film Creswick, the film follows Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) as they go to visit Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) after she has suddenly disappeared without a trace. However, Edna suddenly appears, but isn’t acting like her normal self. Edna is showing signs of dementia that has Kay and Sam worried for her and have been making her act very strangely and she also has a strange bruise on her chest. As Edna’s condition worsens and her behavior gets stranger, Kay and Sam begin to recognize that there might be something more going on here as they start to feel a horrifying presence in Edna’s home.
Relic depicts dementia in a way that’s not only terrifyingly real, but also very daunting as we see how it affects Kay and Sam. Throughout the house, there’re sticky notes that Edna has placed that help her remember things like turning off the faucets and even her own name. Kat and Sam find her just talking to no one sometimes and sleepwalking throughout the night. She can’t even remember where she’s been when she disappeared and begins to act more and more paranoid towards them – even attempting to rip a ring off of Sam that she forgets she gave to her. It’s a very emotional depiction of dementia that keeps you invested into the story and even makes you care for Kay and Sam as they attempt to cope with it. From Sam putting out the idea of her moving in with Edna to help her out to Kay visiting a retirement home and being mortified by the bleak conditions, it’s easy to see that this is an equally difficult process for them and that they are always trying to do what’s best for Edna and what’ll keep her safe.
All of the caring feelings and spurs of Edna losing her grip on reality are made even more believable because this leading trio is so great here. Mortimer is great as a daughter who’s haunted by nightmarish visions of her great-grandfather’s death and trying to cope with her mother’s worsening condition. She makes the stress that Kay is feeling and the sadness she has in her mother going through this traumatic condition very relatable. Heathcote gives us another very relatable performance as Sam’s loving nature of Edna is very admirable and she displays some level of genuine innocence with how she wants to move in with Edna to help out that makes her hard not to love. Nevin easily gives the most compelling performance as she gives Edna a creepy yet endearing presence and makes you kind of care for her in the same way that Kay and Sam still do because of how we see her growing dementia affect her.
Within the first two acts of this, James really showcases her skills with the camera by creating an instantly uneasy and dizzying atmosphere. The house feels like a maze with how we’re constantly going through the same rooms during both day and night and the lack of score works really well in creating a quiet tension. There’s also this dreading sense of isolation with how there’s nothing really around them and it makes for some creepy nighttime scenes when outside lights suddenly turn on and things go bump in the night. It’s also great how James keeps things very tight in the frame and obscured in the shadows to keep viewers on the edge of their seat and riddled with slow-burn tension. I’ll admit that Relic does suffer from the same problems that most slow-burn horror films do in that you are kind of left waiting for something to happen for quite some time, but all of it is made worth it in the film’s horrifying final act.
All of the horrors that Relic has to offers are dealt within its final thirty minutes and its some of the most satisfying and creepy turns I’ve seen lately. The film takes a major turn that changes what we thought we’ve been seeing and turns the house into a dizzying nightmare. The way that James utilizes the gross look of mold growing and some stomach-turning practical effects is a horror fan’s dream and turns the nightmares that Kay is having into a horrifying reality. There’s a horrifying sequence of Kay consoling Edna in her bed that contains some skin-pulling practical effects that are both incredibly impressive and immensely effect in displaying some unique body horror that would even impress the like of David Cronenberg. The end is also very haunting and satisfying because the hereditary horrors that befall its characters and creates a sense of inevitability that sticks with you.
Relic is a sweetly slow-burning horror that keeps viewers invested with its depiction of dementia and leaves them shook and deeply disturbed with the horrors that are unleashed within its final act. Any viewers looking for a different slice of the horror genre, need to give James’ excellent debut a watch.