[Review] ‘RELIC’ unearths deep seated horrors

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

RELIC

Rated R, 90 minutes

Directed by: Natalie Erika James

Starring: Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote, Robyn Nevin,

It’s a radical concept to put audiences directly in the mind of someone struggling with memory loss. And yet here we are with Natalie Erika James’ RELIC. Its alluring, woozy, creeping dread centers on a multi-generational family thrown into crisis after the eldest matriarch begins exhibiting extreme signs of dementia. The haunting, at times heart-wrenching horror is a slow-burn, taking its time to properly cultivate its prickly atmospheric pull.

Kay (Emily Mortimer) has recently returned to her secluded childhood home upon learning her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) has gone missing. Her mother had fled the home, fearing an evil presence plaguing her since her husband passed away – a presence that would leave lights on and doors open. Kay’s daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) has also uprooted her life, leaving university hoping to help with the search. As the pair re-acclimate to the eerie, molding manse, they too begin feeling uneasy and unmoored.

The search doesn’t last for long as Edna randomly returns from her mysterious sojourn. However, because of Mom’s special circumstances surrounding her diminishing mental capacities, Kay’s ordered to stay with her for the next few weeks to oversee the home and secure her mom’s well-being. She weighs putting her mother in a facility instead, but that doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. So, succumbing to self-pressure, she takes on the challenge of caring for her ailing mother – going so far as to encourage Sam to go back to school. Only Edna’s problems worsen once all three women are together. In addition to physical changes, she exhibits terrifying moments of lucidity and anger, inflicting wrath on Sam. Kay’s trauma also begins bubbling to the surface, manifesting through nightmares about her grandfather’s cabin. Their time together won’t be one of healing, but rather one spent being hollowed out.

Bella Heathcote in RELIC. Courtesy of IFC Films.

A sinister unease coats the picture, from Steven Jones-Evans’ production design reflecting thematic motifs, to Charlie Sarroff’s cinematography mirroring a musty, foreboding sense of gloom. Brian Reitzell’s score builds taut tension in his compositions with discordant, swirling violins echoing Edna’s distrust, Sam’s confusion, Kay’s lingering resign and sadness. Robert Mackenzie’s sound design makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

James’ use of mise-en-scène elegantly enhances the narrative. The dank, damp forest that surrounds the property feels like a soggy, sorrowful prison, locking in Kay’s deeply repressed anguish. Grandpa’s cabin window that was raised and set in Edna’s home connotes trauma being passed down from one generation to another. The close-up of the rotting fruit on Edna’s counter brilliantly foreshadows the rotting decay that’s about to eclipse the trio’s relationship.

Unlike THE VISIT’s entertaining, albeit ageist superficiality, RELIC makes sufficient use of its atmosphere, visually contextualizing the debilitating illness’ complexities. It’s a haunted house flick without a spook. The concept is that senility is, in fact, the lurking boogeyman. James and co-screenwriter Christian White make the home itself a character,  a physical representation of Edna’s crumbling mental state. The myriad long dark hallways and disorienting hidden corridors, cluttered with boxes blocking the way out, symbolize those same passages in Edna’s mind shutting down and memories being forever lost.

James’ artistic panache further augments the character-driven action. When we overhear Kay’s phone conversation expressing her emotional dilemma with her mom, she’s seen only in silhouette, a screen obscuring and fragmenting her image as she paces. The camera turns upside down and tilts to indicate these characters’ worlds being off-kilter. The picture’s cool gray color palette parallels the narrative’s emotional tonalities – the cooling of a once-warm relationship. There’s also some terrifying, indelible imagery of Edna’s physical demise with the disease morphing her from human to a far more insidious, grotesque entity.

RELIC is part of the dawning of a new subgenre in horror – one that stirs up empathy along with its atmospheric frights. For those who’ve gone through similar situations with loved ones, this speaks directly to the unbearable situation shouldered by all parties – not solely those suffering from dementia, but also for those caught in its radiating blast. Altogether insular and intimate, confining and claustrophobic, this one sucks the air out of the room in the best of ways.

Grade: B+

RELIC will be playing in select theaters, drive-ins and digital/ VOD on July 10.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.