As psychological horror debuts go, writer-director Natalie Erika James’ Relic is an impressive first entry. It does follow many of the standard horror tropes of the creepy haunted house, but it is also set apart in this genre by its visually rich analogy to the disturbing effects of dementia.
Daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) return to the remote family home after Kay’s mother and Sam’s elderly grandmother Edna (Robyn Nevin) mysteriously goes missing. After a couple of days, Edna returns, confused and without any knowledge as to where she has been. As her mother’s mental health deteriorates, Kay and daughter Sam find themselves battling something sinister within the four walls that may go to explain Edna’s state and other strange occurrences.
James’ stunning earthy tones and special effects beautifully capture the inevitable decline of Edna’s mental health, to the point where lines blur between perceived reality and fantasy – and vice versa. These clever visual mind games add to the creeping suspense and vulnerability of all three females as they stay put in the home. There is constant guessing at whether events are self-afflicted or if something more supernatural is maliciously at play, for characters and audience alike.
The house seems to be alive, feeding off the characters’ melancholy and their broken relationships which the story hints at, with the only respite punctuated by the odd, lighter moment accompanied by music that forces slightly more colour into the James’ frame.
Mortimer, Heathcote and Nevin are excellent, believable in their own personal struggles and disputes as family members at odds. Nevin haunts every frame she inhabits as independent Edna, keeping all guessing as to what possesses her and what she will do about it, even at the very end.
After a frantic chase that is the stuff of claustrophobic nightmares, we are still none the wiser as to Edna’s true fate. In fact, the end scenes cause further confusion, with all kinds of suggestions as to the mental state of all parties involved. It warrants an open, subjective verdict, if you like, that welcomes any theory to the table.
For such a tightly-wound tale up until this point, it is not clear if this was the director’s intention to leave it so ambiguous and full of dread that you are more than happy to accept this ending, or whether James’ ran out of portraying any worthy logical conclusion? One thing for sure is the physical and mental degradation is far greater at the end that the dementia analogy is still very much in tact and even stronger.
Relic is true fright fest thanks to intelligent storytelling and extraordinary special effects that effortlessly blend reality and fiction. It is also a film that marks James as an exciting, emerging filmmaking talent of Australian cinema.