Synopsis: A woman links her mother’s increasingly volatile behavior to an evil presence at their family’s decaying country home.
Stars: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote
Director: Natalie Erika James
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: If you look back over the history of the horror genre you see it developing with the time. Early entries from the black and white era largely suggested danger without showing it, much like audiences were unsure what was really happening overseas in WWII. As the counterculture was brought from the shadows to the mainstream in the late 60s and 70s, so too did the genre give way to boundary pushing fright cinema that stylishly developed a look all its own. The 80s slasher craze and endless sequels/copycats went well with the mall obsessed teen moviegoers that loved to dress like their favorite celebrity. When the hammer of reality came down in the 90s and 2000s, horror pivoted again with self-aware work that was as snarky as its target audience.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen another seismic shift in nightmare cinema, and it’s been a return to a desire for intelligent scares and less on quick terror. Movie going isn’t cheap so audiences want to spend their money attending entertainment that is going to give them the best return on their investment…and they don’t want to be treated to another cookie cutter slasher film heavy on blood, guts, boobs, and butts. Films like The Conjuring and Hereditary have left a lasting impression because they’ve scared the beejebus out of audiences but have more up their sleeves than just mere frights.
You can add the new Australian film Relic to that list of successful genre offerings too and even place it fairly high on the list. With its small cast and confined setting, it works wonders with the limitations it places on itself and never lets the viewer get too far ahead of the characters experiencing some perplexing behavior of a loved one. Working from her own script, Natalie Erika James directs the mostly three-person film with a sure hand and only rarely lets the standard tropes of horror films get in the way of the story she’s trying to tell.
Concerned for the well-being of her mother Edna who hasn’t been seen by her neighbors in several days, Kay (Emily Mortimer, Mary Poppins Returns) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote, The Neon Demon) drive up from Melbourne to Edna’s home in the woods. Arriving to find Edna gone but evidence that she’s likely suffering from dementia, the two begin to search through the house for clues as to her whereabouts while joining with the locals to find their matriarch. When Edna (Robyn Nevin) does eventually return in the middle of the night, something is off and while we get the impression she was never the warmest of maternal figures she has an especially sharp bite to her when provoked in the slightest.
Sticking around to ensure Edna is settled back in while also planning to move her into a facility that can care for her future needs, Kay begins to notice strange indicators around the house that something worse may have infiltrated the premises. Edna’s increasingly detached behavior and wild mood swings wreak havoc on the relationship between her daughter and granddaughter, prompting both to dig further not just into Edna’s condition but into the house and surrounding woods which seems to hold more secrets the family will need to face together. With Edna’s condition worsening rapidly and the unexplained incidents becoming more violent, the three women all face a challenging evening in a house that might have its own agenda.
It’s not hard to pick up the metaphor Relic is laying down but even if you do catch on what’s happening you’ll likely be thrown for a loop in the film’s final act which trades the quieter, slow burn moments of the previous 70 minutes for a genuinely worrisome finale. It’s not just that James delivers some serious scary sequences and arresting visual imagery as the three women face some frightening happenings, but that all of it feels…personal. Couple that with an unexpectedly moving (for a horror film) ending and you have a memorable and highly recommendable feature.
I can see why Relic wouldn’t quite land for everyone and it’s worth noting that much of the success of the film relies on our emotional connection to the characters and story. If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t latch on like that, the movie may not hold the same lasting impact I felt. It’s a tricky ending and it could have easily gone wrong, but I think it’s extraordinary. For me, I thought about the movie and it’s bracing ending for days afterward and was impressed all over again at the delicacy with which James chose to end her film and the chutzpah it must have taken to do it herway.