A cursory glance at Relic’s reception shows a split between critics and audiences, with the former praising its ‘expertly crafted atmosphere of dread’ and the latter bemoaning how ‘slow’ and ‘dull’ it is. The audience has got it right this time, for Relic is indeed a trite, laboured debut.
Co-written and directed by Natalie Erika James, the film tells a story of family crisis in which three generations of women – Edna (Robyn Nevin), the grandmother; Kay (Emily Mortimer), her daughter; and Sam (Bella Heathcote), her granddaughter – struggle with the elder’s psychological decline. Like many films before it, Relic uses horror as a metaphor for illness, yet this ghoulishly indirect treatment of dementia is far less scary than the realism of Still Alice, for example.
The film begins as a missing person’s case, with Edna nowhere to be found in or out of her rural, white cladded house. It is an evocative location that’s attractively shot by Charlie Sarroff, whose camerawork is graded with a cool, dark tone that gives the film an overcast aura. Indeed, you can almost smell the petrichor as Kay, Sam and townspeople scour the forest for Edna. These opening moments, perhaps 20 minutes long, are Relic’s best.
When Edna reappears, the film’s modicum of interest plateaus and then slowly declines toward the credits, at which point you’re willing for it to end. The so-called ‘atmosphere of dread’ consists of a lot of wide-eyed, trepidatious slinking, mostly in hallways but also in broom cupboards, and it’s usually caused by mysterious banging noises. It’s all part of a derivative haunted house formula: weird noises, tortured violin strings, moss on the wall – repeat. The only prop Relic gets here is that it doesn’t indulge in cattle prod jump scares.
As Edna’s behaviour becomes stranger, we question whether it is because of her ostensible dementia or some kind of supernatural element. The aforementioned moss, which manifests on people as well as walls, suggests it may be the latter. However, when the family has this little chemistry, who cares? Kay is too po-faced to have a relationship with anyone; all we get from her is a vague suggestion that she’s shared a difficult relationship with her mother There’s some friendship between Edna and Sam, often at the expense of Kay, but nothing approaching a developed, interesting relationship. This is a reflection not of the performances – which are fine – but the script, which is more interested in plodding attempts at ambience than dialogue between its few characters.
In the climax, this frosty character work gives way to flat metaphor, with labyrinthine corridors representing the confusion of dementia and a fetal, mummified corpse symbolising the infantilisation of old age. It’s presented in a final-form monster climax like that of The Fly, only without all of the drama, heart and horror. Ultimately, Relic has taken the A24-style horror to a point of lifeless inertia, when perhaps it should have considered the transgression of The Exorcist, the detail of Rosemary’s Baby and even the punch of Paranormal Activity.
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