Directed by Natalie Erika James.
Screenplay by James & Christian White.
Starring Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Jeremy Stanford, Chris Bunton, & Christina O’Neill.
AGBO / Carver Films / Film Victoria
Rated R / 89 minutes
Horror / Mystery / Thriller
★★★★1/2I’ve written a bunch about mental illness in horror films, recently an article on the film Z. The horror genre’s great at dealing with the anxieties and fears of human psychology. Relic is no different, tackling hereditary mental illness by way of a modern Gothic story. This is the first feature film by Natalie Erika James. She’s boldly announced herself as someone who knows how to use horror to scare an audience, as well as make them think.
James and co-writer Christian White’s screenplay depicts a family dealing with death and psychological decay. Edna (Robyn Nevin) is beginning to deteriorate mentally since the death of her husband. She goes missing, but after her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) rush to the old family home, she returns. They can’t get any answers out of Edna about where she’s been, nor what she was doing. When Edna starts acting stranger, a sinister presence fills the house.
Relic is beautifully haunting, the kind of story I found myself thinking about for days on end afterwards. James conjures several images I’ll literally never be able to forget. What films like Z tackle in a more allegorical sense, Relic treats more literally, albeit with a great deal of symbolism. The film uses its Gothic elements to explore the decay and hereditary horror of mental illness, specifically dementia. The results are terrifying and depressing in equal measure— in other words, spectacular horror.
When Sam remarks to her mother “Well isn‘t that how it works, your mom changes your nappies and then you change hers?” it’s a recognition of how the beginning of life is intricately connected with the end. The cycle of life takes us from infant to elderly, then back again. We see this further in a Gothic role reversal following Edna’s inexplicable sudden return. In a key scene, Kay has to check under the bed for her senior citizen mother to make sure nothing’s under there. Something is, indeed, under there, even if Kay refuses to actually acknowledge it. This moment is a mini-allegory of Kay refusing to fully acknowledge her mother’s dementia, knowing it’s there lurking in Edna’s mind like that thing in the dark beneath the bed, yet unwilling to really see it, to legitimately accept its reality.
Edna going missing but not being seen leaving the house for a week suggests she was inside the house all along, wandering through the labyrinth upstairs. We can view it as symbolic of dementia symptoms. Edna’s disappearance is the process of her becoming lost in her own mind, going missing in the halls of her own house. They become halls she no longer totally recognises, now turned darker, dank, and lined with the black mould growing in her mind she inherited from her bloodline. In the film’s finale when Kay is finally capable of grasping what’s happening she sees the shadowy recesses of her Gothic childhood home and actually goes in after Edna and Sam, just as only once we understand the disease afflicting our loved ones can we begin to truly help and do what’s in their best interests.
“I was happy to see it go”
Such genuine terror in Relic comes from the Gothic conventions that act as symbols of mental illness. The demonic body of mental illness becomes like a living, evil entity in the family’s lives. Dementia haunts the halls, waiting to spread its dark mould onto those in the house. A brief eerie shot shows a dark figure lurking in one of the door frames, exactly like the jump scare moment when Kay’s looking under her mother’s bed.
Eventually, Edna transforms into the scary figure herself.
A double haunted house effect comes with the equally haunted cabin that used to be out back of Edna’s unsettling home. Most insidious of all, the windows from the old cabin were installed in the house after the cabin was torn down. The whole property, via Edna’s family, is connected with deteriorating mental health left unchecked— Kay’s great-grandfather who went mad and rotted away infects the rest of the family, passing on his dementia figuratively by way of the dark mould growing on the walls and, subsequently, on the body. Labyrinthine corridors upstairs behind a locked door are the most prominent image because classical Gothic so often involves basements and dungeons. Here, the fact the rotting corridors are upstairs relates to the idea of a haunted house as a body; upstairs symbolises the head, where all the festering mould of Edna’s dementia lies.
The title Relic comes to mean a variety of things throughout the film. The word ‘relic’ comes from the Latin reliquae, meaning ‘remains’ and further derives from re + linquō (I forsake/relinquish/abandon). Edna refers to her husband’s death and the family property when she says: “This house is the only thing left of our memories.” Her decaying Gothic house is a relic of their family, except Edna wants to preserve something that isn’t tainted. This is best represented in the scene where Kay finds Edna trying to bury then eat family photos. This is her mother’s attempt to tangibly capture the past in a corporeal manner, by literally ingesting the photos, or to bury her good memories in a place where the rot can’t get at them in the ground; anything so they’re not consumed by the mould of dementia.
Another use of the word ‘relic’ pertains to the ending. Kay not leaving her mother at the end, even after she and Sam are attacked by Edna, is an allegory for the way we must remember our loved one is not their illness; they are not the one lashing out or forgetting you or resenting you. They are not the monster that dementa can turn them into, thus the symbolic peeling of Edna: she’s altered, however, she’s still the same person she was before underneath all of dementia’s decay. This is the ultimate relic Kay and her daughter must keep of Edna in their memory of her, remembering Edna as she was and not what she became. Last of all, ‘relic’ comes to signify the relic of dementia Edna’s already passed onto Kay. The obvious visual is that final moment where Sam notices a dark spot growing on her mother, the hereditary dementia beginning to grow, if only just a minuscule spot at the moment. Sadly, Sam will probably find one of her own in a couple decades.
If I could program any triple-feature it’d be Relic, Hereditary, and Sator. That’d be a long, depressing night. They’re three films about hereditary mental illness and each one of them tackles it in a different, exceptionally terrifying way. Natalie Erika James is a fresh new voice whose next work will be highly anticipated on this site. The way she conceptualises dementia here is visually stunning and likewise upsetting. The three generations of women played by Nevin, Mortimer, and Heathcote are as impressive as anything else in the film.
Relic drives an important conversation we need to have about dementia. Horror can all too often make villains out of the mentally ill rather than portraying the horror of illness itself. Edna’s transformation leads to a harrowing sequence and a disturbing, tragic moment brings it to an end. What follows with Kay not leaving her dying mother, carrying her upstairs to bed, is the film’s rejection of a villainising portrait of mental illness. Although the very final moment depressingly shows the hereditary nature of Edna’s dementia, there is beauty in Relic‘s horror as it seeks to retain humanity beneath its peeling layers.