RELIC. A Horror Film About the Demon of Dementia
Hidden by dust rooms, objects left everywhere, leaking water from the bathroom, senseless repetition of actions, unintentional self-harm. Is it a monster? No, it’s not just a monster – it’s a disease. Regardless of the genre, the Relic entity will escape anyone who approaches it like any other scarer. Following the movements seen in recent years in horror cinema, the director aims for a metaphorical message and primarily tells of the troubling human issues.
Therefore, the outline of the story should be approached with distance. This film, primarily based on atmosphere, has a very simple plot structure: a daughter (Bella Heathcote) and mother (Emily Mortimer) visit the grandmother of the former (Robyn Nevin). It turns out that she disappeared a few days ago and no one has seen her for some time. Nevertheless, they seem only partially concerned – the older woman suffers from dementia and such situations have occurred in the past. Eventually, the woman is found and from then on, they will spend many hours together, during which it becomes apparent that the symptoms of the disease have worsened even more. In addition, the house has begun to be haunted by strange anomalies.
As I emphasized in the introduction, Relic continues the processes increasingly asserting their presence in contemporary horror cinema. Although theorists continue to debate the classification of the subgenre known colloquially as post-horror, in the case of this production, it’s difficult to avoid this categorization. The full-length debut of Australian filmmaker Natalie James aligns in many ways with its poetics, focusing on the psychological aspect of the story, allegorical interpretation, slow pace of action, and departing from a zero-style formal layer. But step by step.
The emphasis on psychology is mainly evident in the patient examination of the relationship between daughter, mother, and grandmother. Specifically, the two different perspectives on the health situation of the latter – the mother plans to place the woman in an appropriate facility, while the daughter objects and even offers to move to take care of her relative. It’s easy to identify with the presented problems, especially when we ourselves have faced a similar dilemma in life – another issue is that in Polish reality, financial difficulties also arise. In any case, the topics tackled by the author are ambiguous and therefore interesting – unfortunately, there either aren’t enough of them or they are discussed too sparingly.
However, we quickly discover that the sluggish development of the whole does not necessarily lead to dramatic changes in the status quo. The pace is almost snail-like, yet the answers we are heading towards do not entirely compensate for the waiting time. Typically, they simply revolve around the decision of the heroines regarding the woman’s placement in a facility – less frequently, they concern the family’s past. An exception is the third act, when the action actually picks up and the characters’ fears take on a tangible form, but again – the conclusion of the whole, although emotionally moving, is merely another attempt to confront the controversial issue of caring for the grandmother. I miss the development of the women’s bond, expanding it with past events that would help us understand why certain decisions were made. The occasional hints are too few to suffice for what can become a rather dull second act at times.
It’s a shame because when it comes to symbolism, the director knows exactly what she’s doing. She quickly establishes the house as an equally dark character, dynamically changing throughout the film, at times becoming a materialization of dementia. The building seems to spy on the ladies, as emphasized by shots shrouded in darkness from behind doors or windows, often deliberately breaking all the rules – for example, not showing us the speaker in a conversation. The accompanying minimalist music evokes unease, relying more on irregular, grating sounds than a specific melodic line, sometimes resembling a cry. Formally, it is undoubtedly an author’s film, subordinating all elements to the desire to evoke in us a discomfort similar to what accompanies the care of a person suffering from this terrible condition.
And it cannot be denied that the actress, Robyn Nevin, captures its ambiguity very well. She smoothly transitions from a state of physical suspension or grandmotherly benevolence to terrifying intensity, aided by excellent characterization. The special effects at times bring the film close to body horror territory, but they remain grounded enough in reality to avoid becoming comical. It’s just a pity that the same success was not achieved in avoiding occasional thematic emptiness. This unfortunately prevents me from excessive enthusiasm and labeling Natalie James as a genre visionary. Nevertheless, we are dealing here with an impressive debut, demonstrating a familiarity with conventions and an ability to place them within a framework that goes beyond the boundaries of standard horror. Moreover, its ending – despite the efforts of the demon of dementia – will stay with me for a very long time.