Inverse Reviews

Relic is slow-burn gothic horror haunted by dementia

Freshman filmmaker Natalie Erika James fuses cultural horror styles to produce a work totally its own.

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In his 1989 book Love's Executioner, Irvin D. Yalom wrote that people die twice. The first is when you stop breathing. The second is "when I exist in no one's memory." It is this death, the kind you don't often see in horror movies, that director Natalie Erika James anticipates in her freshman feature film, Relic.

While demons and monsters are scary enough, there is nothing as terrifying as the loss you feel when a loved one forgets your face, your name, your whole self.

On video-on-demand platforms July 10, Relic is a gothic horror movie where the evil energy isn't an ancient curse or a demon in the bedroom. It's dementia. Armed with intimate experience and adaptation of Japanese-style horror, James brings forth an eerie gem thick with the dramatic weight of a family torn apart by an insidious and evil disease.

In rural Australia, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) tend to elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin), Kay's mother and Sam's grandmother suffering from Alzheimer's in her decaying home. As Edna's condition gets worse, Kay and Sam discover there's something else in the house that might be haunting them all.

Where James excels in Relic is in making a family drama first and a horror movie second. The scares come soon enough (and they are good scares), but the film begins with the very relatable inconvenience of caring for a senior like a child. As you run after them and keep them in your sight, it is alarming how those who raised you now need you to live. There's an embarrassment and disempowerment that comes with that shift in a familial relationship. It also, grimly, feels like a portent of your own future, a Ghost of Christmas Future that chills you at the spine.

Emily Mortimer (right) stars in 'Relic,' from director Natalie Erika James.

IFC Films

James draws on first-hand knowledge of a loved one in decay, much of it palpable in her final cut. In the production notes (and expanded upon in an interview with Inverse coming soon), James reveals her grandmother died of Alzheimer's in a rural Japanese neighborhood. It was a small town abandoned by young people as they grew up and moved to cities, leaving a community of elders behind. As James tended to her grandmother in her final days, she saw in her a genuine horror story: the fight between the lively woman she remembered and the something she was becoming.

"Grieving for the loss of someone while they are still alive," James says, is worse than death. "It is the degradation of once brilliant minds, kind souls, and a treasured lifetime ... these are the true terrors."

In a compact and atmospheric 90 minutes, James processes her thesis and traumas through her Australian subjects. Six years after Jennifer Kent ushered in a second phase of Australian horror with The Babadook, James blends A-horror with Japanese influences. Abandonment, a major theme in J-horror (spanning movies like 1964's Onibaba to 2002's Ju-On and Dark Water) is everywhere in Relic. First in small doses — "I could never get the curl of the fingers right," says Mortimer's Kay, awkwardly playing her mother's piano, "I think she gave up on me at a certain point" — before the sins of their own abandonment explode in their faces.

Mortimer and Heathcote are effortlessly mesmerizing in their roles of two generations who wrestle with the burden of caring for gran. Grandmother too, played by a hypnotic Nevin, engenders equal parts pity and fear, which Natalie Erika James harnesses to create a complicated triangle of familial love and resentment.

Bella Heathcote stars in 'Relic.'

IFC Films

James really is the MVP of her own movie. As both storyteller and scare master, her strategy is to topple dominoes. False scares and misdirects (a moment with a washing machine is troll-worthy great) soon give way to the truly harrowing and the unavoidable. There is also a bit of fun when, late in the film, James turns her poignant gothic story into survival horror. As the walls of grandmother's sentient house begin to close in and Bella Heathcote panics in a maze, Relic suddenly becomes Resident Evil, dizzying cameras and all.

Though Relic plays a different ballgame than, say, Ari Aster's Hereditary (another haunted house horror about inheritance and resentment), James infuses her story with overwhelming despair few horror movies achieve. It is a wonderfully painful movie, so heavy with guilt and sadness, and it's beautiful. That it's also 90 minutes is a treat: You're in, you're out, you're changed forever.

To answer definitively, yes, Relic is a scary movie. It just doesn't register on the same shriek scales as most horror films. The big final "scare" isn't about giving you a heart attack; through visual metaphor, it leaves you shaken with harsh truths about love, death, loss, and the emptiness between. Relic isn't scary because the person you love is gone, it's scary because they're still there. Somewhere.

Relic will be released on VOD platforms on July 10.

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