Dementia is one of the most insidious illnesses to befall the elderly, and Natalie Erika James uses it as the foundation for the deeply unnerving and surprisingly emotional horror story, “Relic.”
It begins with the type of phone call no one ever wants to receive: “Your elderly mother is missing.” Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) get in the car and make the long drive to the isolated house where Kay’s widowed mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) lives alone. After days of searching yield no signs of the old woman, Edna shows up at home one day, almost as if nothing happened.
But of course something did happen, and a creepy sort of mood settles over the charming house in the woods. The fragile dynamics of mother/daughter relationships take shape in the aftermath of Edna’s disappearance, centering around a grounded performance from Emily Mortimer. She deftly conveys Kay’s fear, mingled with the general anxiety and frustration of caring for an aging parent who refuses to be cared for. There is a familiarity to Mortimer’s character, which resembles other, younger and more optimistic women she has played before. But now she brings a weariness to Kay, a sense that she is setting aside some of the pressing matters in her own life to contend with both her mother and her listless daughter.
Bella Heathcoate is a perfect complement to Mortimer. Sam and Kay may not have the strongest relationship, and there are times when mother certainly thinks she knows best. But the two have a bond that has survived hardships and Heathcoate and Mortimer bring strength to their characters and to each other.
Always on the outside is Robyn Nevin, who is equally captivating in her role as Edna. She and Mortimer allow glimpses into their tumultuous past without ever needing to fully explain any of their shared history. Nevin jumps seamlessly from one emotional extreme to another, never fazed by any of it, even though the impact is often jarring for her family.
And while the fractures in these relationships come to light, soon the house itself begins to reveal a confusing and terrifying labyrinth of decay. This is where the brilliance of the script (written by James and co-writer Christian White) shines. The house itself serves as a visual manifestation of the confusion and terror that comes from succumbing to dementia, and for the family that is forced to watch helplessly as it does its terrible work.
What makes “Relic” even more special is the fact that James has such a mastery of the genre. It isn’t only allegorical. The horrors are real and the demonic forces at work are scary, not only for Edna who has mostly learned to live with them, but for Kay and Sam who experience glimpses of the terror themselves. Shapes lurk in backgrounds, there are unexplained occurrences, locks on every door. This is a horror movie and the scares are real.
This is also an emotionally rich and heartbreaking experience tied together by the three women at its heart. It is rare to find a horror movie with so much maturity and heart. “Relic” is what other celebrated but, frankly, inferior films can only wish to be. And it does all of this in a compact 89 minutes. Natalie Erika James is an exciting new voice in filmmaking and this is just the beginning.