London Film Festival 2020 is running from October 2nd through to October 19th, and I’ll be variously covering a few films from the event this year…
The feature length debut of film short director Natalie Erika James, Relic slots neatly in the pantheon of a new, emerging sub-genre: familial horror.
Picture the quiet, deliberately introverted set up. Set in the woodland wilderness of New Zealand, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) respond to the disappearance of their family matriarch Edna (Robyn Nevin) from the home she lives in alone, an elderly lady suffering from dementia who has vanished out of nowhere. The eeriness begins as Edna, after Kay returns to a homestead she hasn’t visited in some time and reconnects with her past, suddenly reappears but begins to display strange behaviour that goes beyond her degenerative disease, connected perhaps to the dreams Kay is having of the withered corpse inside an old woodland shack. Is Edna becoming more than just a dying old woman?
Well… that would be telling. The clues are there, however, as Relic dials into creeping terror within the home, using quiet, pastoral surroundings to engage with dread. It doesn’t really do anything new with the material, but it often manages to work.
Horror has always brought terror into the home, whether it’s Michael Myers breaking in and stabbing someone to death, home invasion thrillers or even found footage pictures with spooky poltergeists and vicious demons.
Familial horror has crept up on us, appropriately, over the last decade, and much like James has its roots Down Under.
Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is an exercise in developing terror, as Essie Davis tries to protect her son from the titular, folkloric creature. Ari Aster built on this with Hereditary, which uses the homestead as a starting point for ghostly visages, dark shadows and the spectre of something beyond the grave. Relic exists within a similar tonal wheelhouse, given how familial horror centres on the invasion not just of the home, but of the family in a very real, disturbing sense. The central question of Relic is not really whether Edna has been invaded by a dark presence, but rather what that presence is, and what it means to the two generations trying to look after her.
This feels an important aspect of Relic, the nature of generational care. “That’s how it works, right? They change your nappies and then you change theirs” Sam suggests to her mother about the circle of care between mothers and daughters, how the cycle repeats from birth close to death. The suggestion is that Kay has neglected Edna, a widow and a woman clearly living a solitary existence, and James always externalises Edna as the force being compromised, whereas Kay & Sam are the focus of the emotional change. Mortimer plays Kay with a level of exasperated distance, both willing to support Edna through what at first appears to be the tragic ravages of dementia, and also bitter about it. Sam is the lynchpin and often the go-between, as Edna picks up on Kay’s fractious and brittle persona.
What James uses horror to externalise, however, is neglect, commenting on how the elderly are considered a burden we allow to just wither away and expire. While Relic does accept and give in to certain horror tropes, particularly in a final act where chilly drama gives way to Final Girl monster movie trauma, it places these emotional and societal themes front and centre. The monstrous aspects of Relic are metaphorical, as much of horror often is, speaking to how we karma could well visit us on how we treat the generations toward the end of their lives.
Sam seems to understand this lesson more than Kay, at first, and James manages to develop a quietly strong chemistry between Mortimer & Heathcote, believable as mother and daughter, as Relic connects as a feminine stroke of home-based, existential trauma. The end feels like Aster meets Jonathan Glazer, if a cover version, with a level of neat ambiguity that suggests the aforementioned circularity of familial care. We all become our parents in the end.
Relic feels more of a calling card for James than a truly great slice of familial horror, but it never disgraced itself. It understands where to hold back, if it does so perhaps slightly too often to the point it becomes too interior, and when to invade our space with haunting moments of creeping dread. It’s a home worth visiting.
Relic is released in U.K. cinemas on October 30th…
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