By David Dent
Natalie Erika James’s slowly devastating debut feature is a haunted house movie where the haunting is both internal and external.
Edna (Robyn Nevin in a breath-taking performance) has been missing from her house in the woods for two days, which is particularly worrying as she has dementia. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer, proving that with the right material she can be excellent) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) travel to the house to base themselves there and look for her.
Almost immediately, the house seems to have a life of its own, with noises heard behind the walls and appliances shaking. It’s in a dilapidated state, with strange black mould rising up the walls, and a sense of it being unoccupied for years, rather than 48 hours.
After extensively searching the area (scenes of the locals calling for Edna sound like they’re willing her to come back to her own body as much as actually being located), one morning Kay and Sam head down for breakfast to find Edna returned, in the kitchen and acting as if nothing has happened, despite being dirty from head to toe. But something has changed; Edna is watchful, her dementia making her forgetful and mistrustful of those around her. And she has an enormous bruise on her chest which gradually spreads across her body.
Sam finds a sketchbook of drawings by her late grandfather, including a shack which used to be on the house’s grounds before it was pulled down; some of the ornate glazing from the shack has been re-used in the house, which is gradually becoming mouldy around them, matching what’s happening to Edna and the rest of the place.
With Edna’s mental health collapsing, and Kay’s increasing guilt and trauma (manifesting in horrendous dreams about death and decay), the house itself finally rebels, isolating Sam from the rest of the household, and making its otherworldly presence felt.
Anyone who has ever had to care for an older relative, and recognises the role reversal of the child becoming the parent, will identify with the push and pull of love and heartbreak between Edna and Kay. Kay’s mother leaves post it notes around the house to remind her about daily routines (including one that simply states ‘I Am Loved’), but stubbornly refuses to accept her condition. Kay is caught between duty and love, and daughter Sam, although grown up, is out of tune with the tensions between grandmother and mother (it’s the bond between the three, and the ties that threaten to break, that makes this film really special). “Isn’t that how it works? Your mum changes your nappies and then you change hers?” asks Sam, believing that Kay is not doing enough for Edna.
James is careful, until the last fifteen minutes of the film, to keep anything supernatural fairly well hidden, and even in the closing scenes which would, in a more generic horror movie, be the FX tour de force, here they become something more elliptic and tragic. It’s a clever trick; we see things that defy logic and yet because of our connection with the three women we treat them as something internal to the family rather than something external.
‘Relic’ is a slow and powerful piece, full of strange moments, and with a notably claustrophobic soundtrack by Brian Reitzell which combines the sounds of the natural world and the hisses and clicks of an old house into the score. I am so excited to see what James does next.
Relic is available to rent now on Google Play.