Relic (2020) – Drama/Horror – Natalie Erika James – Australia – 89 minutes – available here
Written and directed by first-timer Natalie Erika James, Relic is an Australian psychological horror film, distributed in North America by IFC Midnight.
Clearly inspired by the new wave of socio-political / metaphorical horror films, Relic embraces its similarities with recently acclaimed horror pictures such as Hereditary and, most evidently, The Babadook.
Continue reading and check my final grade below…
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My review is also available on IMDb – Relic (2020)
Check out the official list of 2020 horror films I’ve watched
Relic – story and themes
The story begins when elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) inexplicably vanishes, thus 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 behaviour turns increasingly volatile, both begin to sense that an insidious presence in the house might be taking control of her.
As the IMDb synopsis for Relic unmistakably claims, the film follows “daughter, mother and grandmother who are haunted by a manifestation of dementia that consumes their family’s home”. There is no doubt, here: the film has a goal and doesn’t tiptoe around it.
Inspiration and creativity
In fact, Relic is a bit too obvious and on-the-nose with its themes and agenda. Take other outstanding examples of psychological horror in the last couple of years: The Lighthouse explores ideas of guilt and identity, Hereditary is primarily about mental illness, Midsommar delves into the breaking of a character’s relationships and even The Babadook, the least subtle out of these, takes a look at grief in a rather mysterious and complex way. These examples let the viewer discover the meat of the story without serving it on a silver platter. Relic, on the other hand, wears its main theme on its sleeve, leaving very little for the eager audience member to explore.
At the same time, though, James’ directorial debut has enough creativity and originality to cover up the unmistakable messaging. Without giving away much, Relic uses the setting as an effective part of its story and concepts, making the world of the three main characters literally crumble just like one’s mind gets progressively affected by that hideous disease called dementia. In this respect, the ending (in fact, the entire third act) perfectly wraps up the story, providing a gut punch that delivers on both a disturbing and an emotional level.
Creepiness in the details
Despite the lack of subtlety during the majority of the runtime, Relic never falls short on the scares: the use of lighting and sound design – probably the best quality of this film – is extremely competent and helps conveying a constant sense of dread and uneasiness. Shadows and figures visible only at the corner of the viewer’s eye do the rest, providing a touch of mystery that can only be welcomed. Ari Aster’s breakthrough really did improve the genre, for those willing to learn.
A few mistakes and inconsistencies are to be expected in a directorial debut: Relic goes a tad overboard with its editing and clumsy dream sequences, as though it felt the need to make up for some pacing issues during the first act.
Characters full of character
Even when the story is seemingly not being developed, the three main characters keep it interesting: their relationship and interactions are well-written and appropriately executed, with good camera-work that avoids the dull shot-reverse-shot gimmick.
Personally, I was most invested when Edna was on screen: Robyn Nevin does a phenomenal job balancing creepiness and sympathetic behaviour. The acting is, actually, strong from everyone’s part, including minor characters who pop in every now and again as well-written plot devices.
Relic is a very good psychological horror film and a great directorial debut. It feels inspired, sincere and thought-out in every instance. Not everything works, but that is to be expected given the lack of experience behind the camera: yet, the director cleverly made a “bottle movie”, which helps reducing the chance of mistakes and goofs.
This is not a film for everyone, as many viewers who are keener on jump-scares and cookie-cutter ghost stories might find it less than compelling. Others, however, are guaranteed to enjoy this powerful and relatable psychological horror debut.