Emily Mortimer as Kay
Robyn Nevin as Edna
Bella Heathcote as Sam
Chris Bunton as Jamie
Jeremy Stanford as Alex
Steve Rodgers as Constable Mike Adler
Co-written and directed by Natalie Erika James; Co-written by Christian White
The horror genre is one rife with potential to cover more dramatic topics in powerful fashion and some have done so with flying colors, such as both of Ari Aster’s previous works and Robert Eggers’ The Witch, while some have faltered at one or the other in balancing the terror with the story’s themes. Though Natalie Erika James’ Relic features some solid terror and powerful storytelling, its script can’t quite find the proper balance between the two.
When elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) inexplicably vanishes, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) rush to their family’s decaying country home, finding clues of her increasing dementia scattered around the house in her absence. After Edna returns just as mysteriously as she disappeared, Kay’s concern that her mother seems unwilling or unable to say where she’s been clashes with Sam’s unabashed enthusiasm to have her grandma back. As Edna’s behavior turns increasingly volatile, both begin to sense that an insidious presence in the house might be taking control of her.
The pacing of the film is nothing short of a tense, slow-burning affair that nicely offers a look into this multi-generational dysfunction, spotlighting all three women and their various inner struggles in life. As things get worse, the pace may not ramp up in any extreme fashion, but it’s not necessarily a negative for the film, because even in some of its more terrifying moments the reason behind the sinister nature of things isn’t something so devastating like a demonic presence that it requires a faster pace.
The story is certainly a topic previously touched upon in other films, namely in the chilling found footage project The Taking of Deborah Logan, but it’s handled in a much more poignant and haunting fashion in Relic than in most other efforts. James and White’s script does a brilliant job of introducing audiences to Kay and Sam and the former’s troublesome relationship with Edna, making it immediately clear the struggle she has with her desire to unconditionally love her while also having a problem with forgiving her for their past without endless lines of dialogue or scenes dumping exposition on everyone’s motives.
When the sinister presence in the home slowly begins to make itself known via the moldy walls, odd behavior and bumps in the middle of the night, this character development is unfortunately thrown to the wayside in favor of trying to tap into some of the genre’s best haunted house/possession tropes, and though it expertly brings some of them to life, it just feels so imbalanced with what came before. With Eggers’ Witch, the film always put the drama before the horror while also finding ways to meld the horror in, but the problem here is that it can’t seem to find a natural and organic segue between the two, kind of feeling like a jarring shift in tone and genre in many moments.
Should the two have found a better way to complement each other, the terror would’ve felt much more amplified and the drama much more heightened, but instead the feeling that viewers will be left with in a number of scenes is one of trying to figure out whether they should be saddened by what they’re seeing or horrified or both. Additionally, a lot of the story starts to become very convoluted and hard to connect to as things go on, with its subtle messages becoming a little too obvious and its answers becoming fewer and fewer. Keeping audiences in the dark on answers is certainly a great thing when it comes to horror, but there’s not even any hinting of what’s terrorizing the family, creating a sense of general confusion about the events and hauntings that have occurred leading up to its ending.
Even if the story falters in its tonal balance, the performances from Mortimer, Heathcote, and Nevin prove magnetic across its near-90 minute runtime, keeping audiences compelled to continue watching the characters as they come to terms with a potentially very real and disturbing situation. James’ direction also proves to be stellar, with cinematographer Charlie Sarroff helping deliver an elegant and artful look to the whole affair, making even the mismatched storytelling interesting to watch.
Relic is certainly a chilling film and one full of heartbreaking explorations of humanity, aging and dementia, with moving central performances and skillful direction, but much of its script can’t quite find the right balance between its terror and drama.