Relic (Horror Movie Review)

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: When Grandma Edna (Robyn Nevin) disappears from her home one day, her daughter Kay ) Emily Mortimer) and Granddaughter Sammy (Bella Heathcote) come to look after her. In return, the deathly grip of dementia has a plan for them all.

REVIEW: High hopes were had heading into the harrowing and hebetudinous RELIC (WATCH IT HERE), the much-ballyhooed new dramatic horror yarn from first-time Aussie director Natalie Erika James. While walking away with a tinge of disappointment in relation to the lofty expectations going in – beware, this is not quite on par with the comparative HEREDITARY, THE BABADOOK or THE WITCH – here is however a deeply disquieting, slow-simmering and finely-tuned first film from a talented director and featuring a trio of intergenerational female actors who give convincing and credible performances across the board. Patience will certainly be required for many viewers, as this story unfolds at a deliberate pace meant to slowly seep deep into your pores and fester subcutaneously until you can feel the boil under your skin. But the wait is more than worth the reward when the rhythm and pacing in the final half-hour rise in unison with the action, emotional impact, and flinching terror. A few dubious lighting cues and a flimsy allegory aside, RELIC is not just a superb directorial debut, but it’s also a must-see for mature horror heads and hearts when it releases on Friday, July 10th.

A slow, low flickering opening inside a rural Australian abode establishes the torpid pacing the picture adheres to for most of the duration. We find ourselves inside the moldering home of Edna, an elderly woman who has suddenly vanished from her property without a trace. Edna leaves little notes to herself around the house to remind her to take her pills, flush the toilet, and turn off the tap and other menial tasks that suggest her mind is slipping away to dementia or Alzheimer’s. Upon hearing of her disappearance, Edna’s daughter Kay and Kay’s daughter Sammy arrive to find her and discover why she vanished so suddenly and where to. Edna’s house is not only dim and disheveled, but Kay and Sammy begin to hear loud pounding noises coming from inside the walls that come with large spots of what looks like black mold. Creepier yet, when Sammy puts on one of Edna’s sweaters, she finds a note in the pocket that reads “don’t follow it.”

A day or so passes before Edna suddenly appears in the kitchen one morning as if nothing strange has happened. When Kay presses her for answers, we instantly sense a fray with each mother-daughter dynamic. Kay and Sammy aren’t exactly close, neither are Edna and Kay. Edna and Sammy do get along, however. But when Kay finds blood one of the garments Edna wore while away and a giant bruise on her chest, both Sammy and Kay voice their concerns while Edna becomes more combative and defensive. Now, for a movie largely taking place in one location with three actors, avoiding spoilers is both tricky and paramount. Suffice it to say, Edna’s eroding mental state begins to wear on all three women. Kay discovers that her friendly young kid-neighbor Jamie (Chris Bunton) stopped visiting because Edna forgot to let him out of a closet for hours when playing hide and seek, leading down a path of mortifying clues as to what goes on inside her grandmother’s house.

The first hour of the film takes its time to establish a lethargic rhythm and tempo and to offer minor hints about Edna’s condition. Not much happens, but drips and drabs of vital info are doled out that begin to add up and paint a rather grisly picture. Some viewers may take umbrage with the sluggish pace of the piece, not to mention the imperceptibly dark lighting inside the house. We’re not talking about the typical stygian gloom of most horror movies, but rather the kind of squinting darkness that requires you to shut the curtains and increase the brightness on your TV. It’s irksome and unpleasant. But the subtle cumulative effect of the slow-burning unease is almost as unnoticeable as some of the shrouded visuals, and really tightens its breathless squeeze by the final act. That is, just when you think not enough is happening for a 90-minute movie, the final act ratchets up and moves in an entirely new direction that improves the overall experience. Again, not to spoil things, but once we discover the evil extent of Edna’s insanity, it doesn’t just frighten, but it also breaks your heart.

What strikes most about RELIC is how it starts out as a family drama first and foremost, and allows the horror to naturally unfold out of the characters. Superb acting is needed for such a shift, and all three female leads give outstanding turns in the film, with Heathcote really impressing as Sammy. What works slightly less is the metaphoric manifestation of Edna’s illness that goes too far over the top to remain rooted in the drama the first half establishes, only to return to the dramatic tone in the emotional finale. That is, the allegory doesn’t quite convince in the way the performers do. That being said, RELIC feels guided by the steady hand of a skillful filmmaker who’s told many a story onscreen, it does not have the whiff of amateurism you might expect from a first-time director. The four short films Natalie Erika James made over the decade prior certainly paid off. RELIC is heartfelt and horrific in equal measure.

Source: Arrow in the Head

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.