Over the decades, countless horror movies have played in the gray area between the supernatural and mental illness. Few terrors are more primal, after all, than the fear that one cannot trust their own faculties, and the ambiguity of not knowing whether a film’s protagonist is simply imagining the forces pursuing them has been mined since at least The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Of course, it’s rare that a horror filmmaker has the gumption to commit to the full-on psych-out ending– one must know one’s audience, after all– but there’s no denying the appeal, when done right, of a good game of crazy-or-ghosts.
Fundamentally, there’s never really any doubt that the spectral presence in Natalie Erika James’ Relic are real; no other explanation is given for the strange goings-on in its central haunt, and spotting the looming shadow figures in the peripheries becomes a game of skill (I’m positive I didn’t catch them all). But it’s equally true that matriarch Edna (Robyn Nevin) is in an undeniable state of cognitive decline, and whether her condition is due to supernatural intervention or simple, earthly dementia is almost beside the point. When you’re beset by demons, what difference does it make if they are inside your head or out?
As Relic begins, Edna is missing. Her daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer), and granddaughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), have taken up residence in her woodland cottage, searching for any clue to her whereabouts. After a few days, Kay awakens to find her mother making tea as if nothing had happened; she’s healthy, apart from a large, ominous bruise on her chest, and seemingly lucid, though she demurs when asked where she’s been. Deciding to stay for a while to look after her, Kay and Sam begin the difficult conversations about what to do with Edna; Sam, a listless sometime-bartender, floats the idea of coming to live with her, while Kay begins the heartbreaking process of touring nursing homes.
But the more time they spend with her, the more they begin to sense that there’s something off about Edna that can’t be explained by simple dementia. Her home is dotted with post-it reminders, and while most are innocuous (“Take Your Pills,” “Flush”), others are decidedly sinister (“Do Not Follow It”). The air in the house is broken by mysterious knocks, and there is a pervasive mold problem that spreads and recedes seemingly of its own volition. Then there’s Edna herself. Most of the time, Edna seems fairly with-it– she’s conversational, and spends her days crafting intricate decorative candles– but she’s also prone to spells, dissociating from those around her and staring intently at… something. She also has occasional violent mood swings, to the extent that the sweet neighbor boy (Chris Bunton) has been forbidden from visiting. As Kay and Sam try to get to the bottom of things, they find themselves plagued by nightmares, and the creeping sense that they might be outnumbered in the house.
As in Hereditary and The Babadook, much of the horror of Relic lies not in its spooks and jump scares (the latter of which are blessedly scarce), but in the spectres of family trauma. Unlike poor Annie Graham, Kay seems to have a relatively stable relationship with both her mother and her daughter, but she’s clearly haunted by Edna’s declining state, as well as the fear that this might be her future as well. Sam, too, finds herself at a crossroads, her millennial burnoutism unexpectedly crashing into the sort of real-world dilemmas that can’t be shrugged off. Then there’s Edna. While there are no flashbacks to show us who she was as a younger woman, we do know that she is a strong-willed, artistic soul (in addition to her candles, Sam and Kay discover a sketchbook filled with striking chiaroscuro doodles), and it’s clear she’s not ready to accept her loss of independence, even as her behavior becomes more and more erratic. Edna’s behavior is strange, and occasionally terrifying, but it also feels startlingly grounded; indeed, one could probably remove the ghosts and the spookery and be left with a completely solid portrait of a family coping with dementia and heartbreak.
But this is not to say that the horror is an afterthought. Watching Relic, I was struck by the way it almost serves as a photo-negative of last month’s You Should Have Left. It plumbs similar emotional territory, and even features a couple of nearly identical gags, but where that film played like a by-the-numbers Blumhouse-house horror movie, Relic is inventive, idiosyncratic, and deeply personal. When the scares arrive, you feel them, both because the three central performances are nuanced enough to involve you in their story, and because you’re never quite sure how things are going to shape up. Then there’s the ending, a genuinely strange spectacle which mixes dream logic, deeply felt emotion, and inexplicably upsetting body horror. More than perhaps any individual scene this year, I wish I could have seen this in a theater full of people experiencing it for the first time, so I could hear the astonished reactions ripple across the room.
Not everything in Relic is fully explained, and there may be some who lose patience with its slow-burn approach and question mark of a conclusion. But I think its rough edges play to its favor. First-time director James is clearly coming from an incredibly personal place– she has said in interviews that she watched her grandmother battle Alzheimer’s– and that’s reflected in everything from the performances to the monsters. Edna is being haunted both by supernatural forces and by her own brain, and the two inevitably bleed into each other. In the end, there isn’t much difference between living in a haunted house and a house that’s been rendered unrecognizable to you by your own brain; every visitor becomes a demon, and every hallway becomes a long, dark, path to a ghostly dimension. Sometimes, when the question is “Haunted house or mental illness?” the answer is moot.
dir. Natalie Erika James
Now available for digital rental
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