Natalie Erika James' debut finds the horror in dementia but this slow-paced film fails to take the concept anywhere interesting
Three generations of women battle an ambiguous evil force in this debut horror film from Japanese-Australian filmmaker Natalie Erika James, a sort of haunted house movie that conjures an impressively malevolent atmosphere and contains a trio of effective performances, but repeatedly fails to build on an intriguing central idea.
Relic seems to have been inspired by Jennifer Kent's far superior Aussie horror The Babadook, which set out to utilise the genre's trappings in order to tell a wider story about the deep-seated fears associated with motherhood. This film hopes to pull off a similar allegoric feat, this time with the subject of dementia – horror as a manifestation of the ways in which the disease destroys the life of not only the affected individual, but those of their family and loved ones.
Things start intriguingly enough, with Kay (Emily Mortimer) looking for her missing mother, Edna, played here by Robyn Nevin, who has taken to disappearing without warning and is showing signs of mental and physical decay. What should be done with her? Kay clashes with daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) over the next steps – should they move in, or should Edna be moved to a care home? All the time a mysterious black mould is spreading through grandma's house. Get the metaphor?
Hardly subtle – though the disintegrative nature of the disease lends itself well to the genre. After all, a dementia diagnosis is not so unlike living out the experience of a horror movie in real life. And many of the film's early scenes are made especially disturbing on that basis that, stripped of the film's string-heavy score and practical make-up effects, what're you're left with is not so far removed from reality.
But as potent as this is in theory, Relic has very little else on its mind. Once this slow-paced drama keys you into that metaphor about twenty minutes in (did I mention it's a metaphor?), the film reprises the same beats over and over again, resulting in something that feels elegantly crafted in its eerie production design but desperately in need of more to say and do.
The film's final half hour consists of a somewhat thrilling chase sequence that delivers on the genre's promise of gratuitous violence, arriving on a strange – though perhaps ambiguous to the point of meaninglessness – ending that will be sure to please horror fans searching for skin-crawling moments. But even this frantic sequence drags on for way too long, an inescapable sense of repetitiveness overshadowing any previous attempts at nuance. It simply isn't worth the agony.
Relic was screened part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020. Find out more and get showtimes here.Where to watch