Relic is a restrained horror movie and a warped story of decaying motherhood

Australian director Natalie Erika James’ Sundance horror hit is now streaming on Stan. The film has a funeral atmosphere and conveys a tragic depiction of family in decay, writes Eliza Janssen.

The Taking Of Deborah Logan. Decrepit old grannies crawling across the ceiling in The Exorcist III, or serving Jessica Chastain sewer water in It: Chapter 2. Yep, the horror genre can often be pretty disrespectful towards its elders, returning time and time again to the geriatric as a source of spookiness. And at least initially, Natalie Erika James’s feature debut Relic seems to be drawing from the same well, following a mother and daughter trying to uncover the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of grandma Edna (Robyn Nevin).

But as plot questions go unanswered and the chills turn to somber reflection, it becomes clear that Relic doesn’t care about being an Aussie take on The Visit. Whether die-hard horror fans will like it or not, this is a film focused primarily on premature grief; on the heartbreaking experience of mourning someone before they even die.

Emily Mortimer does an ace Australian accent as Kay, a woman punishing herself for not being close enough to her ailing mum Edna even before Edna wanders into the forests surrounding her Creswick home. When Edna returns from the wilderness just as abruptly as she disappeared, Kay is determined to put her in an aged care home, where she’ll be safe, but Edna’s rebellious granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) is protective.

“Isn’t that how it works?”, she appeals to her mum, wanting for Edna to stay in the creaky old family home. “She changes your nappies, and then you change hers.”

Edna is unpredictable, lucid one moment and unhinged the next. Nevin’s performance will strike a chord for viewers who have experienced the same deterioration in elderly family members. It’s devastating enough on its own, which makes it a little frustrating that the film keeps obliquely hinting at some shadowy supernatural backstory to explain her downward spiral. At times, Relic can feel noncommittal, resting on funereal atmosphere rather than actually engaging with the scary visual ideas it shrugs at.

There’s some clever irony in how Kay and Sam are forced to experience Edna’s sickness for themselves, as the sounds and shadows haunting them cause them to question their own sanity. One moving example is in the tragic little Post-It note reminders that Edna leaves around the house, which quickly escalate from the mundane (“REMEMBER TO TURN OFF TAP”) to the terrifying (“GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT”). But once Edna reappears and the three generations of women are under one eerie, shambling old roof, one can’t help but feel like more should happen: more conflict, more originality, more specificity than Edna’s sole moment of admission to Kay that she’s “losing everything.”

To be clear, not every horror movie needs to be a midnight movie gorefest. It’s obvious that James is more interested in horror as a vehicle for dramatic emotional storytelling, rather than delighting in the trappings of the genre itself. Here, most of the terror is conveyed not through jump scares but through minuscule and upsetting detail: Christmas lights pulsing in the dark, eerie ink illustrations, the buzz of flies. In its warped story of decaying motherhood, Relic might remind viewers of the similar Hereditary, but it’s nowhere near as bleak as that feel-bad parental horror hit. Relic’s final images are in fact surprisingly wholesome and hopeful, ending on a heartfelt note that makes the entire film feel justified.

Will fans of the horror genre be satisfied with such a brief special effects money shot occurring so late in the movie? Probably not. But Relic’s vagueness and sustained tension make it a more appealing watch for a broader and more sensible audience, who might find themselves spooked by the fairly typical third act chase sequence. While Relic may not live up to its rave reviews, it’s disarmingly empathetic, and will feel like ‘more than just a scary movie’ to viewers who may normally be scared away by that kind of thing.