London Film Festival 2020
The bonds of matriarchal love are chillingly tested in dementia horror Relic, the directorial debut from Australian Natalie Erika James. While boasting fine performances from the three women leads, and a fascinating concept to materialize within a horror context, the screenplay has far too many unresolved leads to provide a truly satisfying experience.
Edna (Robyn Nevin) is missing. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive to her old home in order to look for her. These scenes already give off a depressing ambiance, with Kay too busy with work to have bothered talking with her mother recently, while Sam is a college dropout without much ambition who currently works in a bar.
Both mother and daughter alike mope around the house — a typical horror location filled with locked doors, creepy post-it notes, and mould festering on every ceiling and floor — when Edna suddenly reappears. Where did she go? She won’t tell anyone, giving off the impression that her mind has also gone walkabout. With barely any men around — both Kay and Edna’s husbands barely mentioned at all — Relic hones in on feminine strife and generational pain, as well the ways people box each other in before listening to their needs.
Like Hereditary, about grief, or The Babadook, about the pains of motherhood, Relic uses horror tropes to play around with its big theme of dementia. Unlike those two films, however, Relic isn’t remotely horrifying. While it is somewhat redundant to criticize a horror film for not being scary — after all, a well-executed jump scare can be terrifying in even the worst of hands — Relic doesn’t instill much dread either.
Simply put, given the talent of Emily Mortimer and Robyn Nevin as dramatic actors, this could’ve worked as a straight drama and possibly been more terrifying in the long run anyway. The idea of watching your parent wither away and their mind disappear is a horrific one — but to verbalize that properly in a horror film, one has to do the scary legwork properly. While the film manages to finally stick the landing, with a special effects bonanza that manages to be both creepy and semi-affecting, the groundwork leading up to this scene leaves the audience wanting.
Additionally, while early scenes give off the impression that Sam and Kay will clash later on, with the younger daughter siding more with the grandmother throughout, this conflict never really pays off by the final act. It all leads up to the final shot that suggests a generational horror that has been going on forever, yet the effect is less haunting than gimmicky; a simplistic way of making one feel dread despite the fact that little has been hinted in that direction. For a debut feature, there is a lot of promise here, however, especially in the matter-of-fact handling of early scenes, which does establish a refreshingly naturalistic tone for a horror film. But when the actual horror stuff is supposed to kick off, Relic barely does enough and far too late to even register.