Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James uses conventional horror tropes as a metaphor for dementia in her debut feature Relic. When the elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) travel to their remote family home to help the local authorities find her. Edna left signs of her dementia everywhere, including post-it notes with reminders to do basic tasks, though others carried more cryptic messages. Their once homely house, situated in the wooded countryside, is now cast in shadows, engulfed by mold and littered with clutter. It’s the perfect haunted house with creaking doors and floors and movement in the walls.
Edna returns three days later as though nothing happened and she won’t reveal where she’s been either. Despite an unsettling black bruise on her chest, a doctor says that Edna is fine, but insists that she isn’t left alone for a few days, much to her dismay. Edna is sometimes coherent, witty and full of personality, but other times she appears lost, confused and talking to herself–a shell of who she is. As her dementia worsens, Edna starts to engage in violent behavior, but Sam and Kay still remain empathetic towards her illness regardless of their concern.
With Relic, James creates an effective slow burn by utilizing family drama and building unnerving tension alongside strong horror imagery throughout. Sam and Kay are haunted by visions and voices signally that something sinister may be present in the house and causing Edna’s behavior. It’s impossible, however, to know what’s real or imagined. Are the dark figures lurking in the shadows part of dementia or is something supernatural at play? This uncertainty invites us into the confusing and isolating mind of someone with dementia. The house changes frequently, causing the cluttered rooms and endless halls to become as unpredictable and disoriented as Edna.
Relic is well-crafted and, at times, subtle in its elements of horror. There are lots of quiet moments that help to maximize the impact of both the diegetic and non-diegetic sound. While slow and silent, the film’s third act is packed with action, adrenaline and abject horror as the allegory reach its full potential. It’s horrifying to watch someone you love lose themselves and James uses horror to explore the distressing reality of an illness that affects the whole family. There’s a strong, eerie and uncomfortable atmosphere, but the film is also capable of moving to tears. Relic‘s ending is both emotionally devastating and terrifying.
Aging and dementia have been tackled in films such as The Visit and The Taking of Deborah Logan, but Relic is more mindful of the harrowing disease. James’ filmmaking and storytelling (co-written with Christian White) have a flare of originality and the film is inspired by the psychological horrors of her own grandmother’s journey with Alzheimer’s. The portrayal of dementia isn’t exploitative or played purely for scares, as the film aims to educate on how the disease eats away at our memories, our awareness and our humanity, making us — or our loved ones — disappear piece by piece. Relic is a reminder to hold onto your loved ones tightly before they are submerged by darkness — a frightening but effective metaphor to capture cinematically.
Relic has been acquired by IFC Midnight. Jake Gyllenhaal (Nine Stories Productions) and The Russo Brothers (AGBO Films) are amongst its producers.