In a story about family and the aging process, Relic hits in places where most don’t. People always die in horror movies but most aren’t designed to purposely remind us of our mortality, of the indignity that it brings, and the alienation that comes with it. Relic is a unique take on the traditional haunted house story in which the past itself is the ghost. People, buildings, items of possession, they all have pasts. A time when they were fresh and new and all we can do is remember them in their prime as they inch closer towards decay.
Ghosts are usually metaphors for the past but Relic is more straightforward. There isn’t actually any ghost in the film, although it vaguely implies that there might be one for the sake of keeping the supernatural element alive but Relic is about age. Age and death, the terror it brings, and the heartbreaking acceptance of it. It really isn’t even that subtle. The damn title tells you what you need to know, “Relic,” for elders are often considered to be relics of the past. Don’t go in expecting to see some grand Lovecraftian monster at the end because there isn’t one and you’ll be greatly disappointed.
Edna (Robyn Nevin) is a widowed elderly woman who has been having memory problems. Loneliness is her constant companion and dementia is coming in close behind. She leaves post-it notes everywhere reminding her of common everyday things like “turn off the facet,” “lock the door,” and “take pills.” One day she goes missing. The opening scene of the film leading up to her disappearance is probably my favorite part. Silently built around tension and creepy as hell, it’s a strong start to open the mystery.
Edna’s scattered post-it notes reveal that she believes something has been following her, making her think and forget things.
After she goes missing, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), arrive to help look for her and they have the typical generational conflicts going on between them, especially in regards to Edna. They figured she’s wandered off and realize that when they eventually find her, she can’t be left alone anymore. Sam doesn’t know why Kay can’t just move Edna in with her and take care of her full time but as for Kay, the inconvenience is too much, not to mention the responsibility. “That’s how it works isn’t it, she changes your nappies and then you change hers,” Sam says.
Meanwhile, there are no clues to Edna’s disappearance except for a strange mold that’s spread across the house and strange noises that come from behind the walls. But then out of the blue, Edna magically returns. She just reappears without any explanation, covered in bruises and refusing to say where she went.
Tensions rise once Edna returns. Sam and Kay aren’t equipped to handle her increasing confusion and agitation. They’re all waiting for things to get back to normal; Sam wants back her sweet n’ salty grandmother who taught her the piano, Kay just wants to feel at ease again so that she can get back to work, and Edna wants to go back to her daily routine. However, there is no going back to normal and as she gets worse, there grows a layer of dread over them all like rot on a wet ceiling. It keeps growing and growing until it’s spread everywhere. The wetness causing black mildew to drip down to the floor and stain the carpet; same as the mysterious mold spreading through the house.
The “ghost” of the house, the rot it’s inflicting, is an extension of the death approaching upon Edna, affecting her body and mind. While looking through her grandmother’s closet, Sam finds another part of the house blocked off with clutter where the mold has spread the worst. It leads into a never-ending series of passages and doorways, the walls donning Edna’s sticky note reminders; “my mother’s eyes are green,” “my name is Edna.” The further she goes, the smaller the hallways become, and soon the final stages of Edna’s “possession” begins.
Directed by Natalie Erika James and written by James and Christian White, Relic is incredibly slow but still feels like it’s runtime. It’s 89 minutes, the perfect length in a world where almost every critical darling is 2h 45 min long. It moves along very quietly, building up to a House of Leaves type climax that suddenly dials down into a heartbreaking moment between mothers and daughters, the finale image of the film is emotive. A finale that sums up the painful and beautiful human experience.
By the way, what’s with movies this year including houses with never-ending mazes behind the walls? First You Should Have Left and now this? What’s going on? Although the maze in this house is much better than the one in David Koepp’s film.(4 / 5)
Photos property of IFC Midnight and Screen Austrailia