Director: Natalie Erika James
Starring: Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote
Run Time: 89mins
Over the last few years, the horror genre has seen the rise of the so-called “elevated horror.” A much-debated term, mainly due to the associated snobbery, and believe it was coined by people who don’t like horror. It is generally used to describe a certain-type of slow-burn horror that delves deeper into character and psychology than your “stereotypical” horror. It has also become most closely associated with A24 films (“Hereditary,” “The Witch,” “It Comes at Night”). And while “Relic” may not be an A24 film, it certainly falls into this category.
This categorisation is no knock on the film, but more an illustration to those looking for a bunch of jump scares, they won’t find it here. That said, the horror maybe slow-burn, but that doesn’t mean it is boring. Sure not much happens in the opening half-hour or so, but from the very first frame, the film is loaded with atmosphere. Debut director Natalie Erika James has a knack for instilling a sense of dread in several relatively innocuous things from an empty chair to an overflowing bathtub to an old tennis net.
In some senses, “Relic” is a relatively straightforward haunted house movie and certainly conforms to some of the sub-genre tropes. However, instead of the house being haunted by a ghost, it is haunted by the presence of dementia. As it tells the story of Edna (Robyn Nevins), whose daughter (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter (Bella Heathcote) end up staying at her home after she initially goes missing. Upon return, it seems she is changed as she seems to both literally and metaphorically be becoming another person in front of her daughter and granddaughter’s eyes.
As allegories go, it is not a particularly subtle one, and arguably the point is hammered home a little too heavily. However, that does not make it any less effective or affecting on the viewer. A big part of the reason for this is three central actresses upon whom shoulders, pretty much, the whole movie rests. There is no doubt this would be a far weaker film without their performances. Notably, the performance of Nevins whose is as equally heart-breaking as she is sinister in her role. Not that the other two aren’t brilliant too as they. But then again, Mortimer rarely isn’t. They all share good chemistry also as there is a real authenticity to their familial relationships.
Another key strength is the use of the house, which is used to maximum claustrophobic effect. And like in all the best haunted house movies is made to feel like a living, breathing entity tormenting our poor leads.
As mentioned beforehand, the film is not totally free from haunted house cliché. Take the looming Dutch angle shot of an empty hallway or the lingering shots of dark stains on the wall a la “Dark Water,” for example. However, even the more clichéd moments are done with such style and infused with such an atmosphere that they fail to elicit the eye-rolls they may do in a weaker film.
Also, just because James leans into the more atmospheric side of horror doesn’t mean she doesn’t know how to elicit a decent scare. Particularly in the third act where the movie veers into some more “straightforward” horror territory before ending on a movingly ambiguous note. Something that seems only befitting this haunting, harrowing debut feature.
Overall: An intelligent, creepy and evocative film, thick with atmosphere, which sensitively deals with the subject of dementia and is anchored three brilliant performances. It also marks Natalie Erika James as a major new name to look out for in horror.