Sundance Review: ‘Relic’ promises a terrifying premise but fumbles with its execution
In recent years, there’s been a small wave of domestic horror films whose source of terror comes from within. Rather than being haunted by a monster or a psycho killer, the threat instead comes from within the family lineage, manifesting family pressures, illnesses, and hidden anxieties into ugly, hideous forms. Perhaps most recognizable within the subgenre is Australian director Jennifer Kent’s cult-classic film The Babadook, and Ari Aster’s indie sleeper hit Hereditary–both films which prey on fears of the family matriarch that eventually swallows them whole. Similarly, Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James’s debut feature-length film, Relic, can be considered one of those films that pursues similar themes.
Relic is a film that follows a mother-daughter duo, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote), who are told that the family matriarch, Edna (Robyn Nevin), has gone missing. Hoping to find her themselves, both Kay and Sam take up residence in Edna’s home, finding clues about her solitary life. But when Edna mysteriously returns one night with no recollection of what had happened to her, Kay starts to notice that her mother is not quite the same. James’s film asks the important question: at what point is your mother not your mother anymore?
Spearheaded by three strong performances from equally strong female characters, Relic works as a great allegory for the horrors of mental issues (namely, dementia) that naturally comes with age. Coupled with beautiful shadowy cinematography (the extended opening shot of Edna in the hallway is goosebump-inducing) and a humanistic touch, Relic lingers in your mind and invites us to question what we are to do with our elders once they have run their course. Are they worth saving, and how can we help them as a family? That question haunts the film’s subtext, unshakably prevalent throughout the stark shadows of Relic. Further cementing the genius in the film’s strong message is a clever candle carving metaphor that ties all of the elements of the film together in a beautiful visual idea, linking two bodies into one. As James takes us into Kay’s world, allowing us to follow her dilemma as to what she should do with her mother, we are similarly troubled and concerned with the film’s exacerbating situation. Even up until the end of the film, when all of the filmic terror has been quelled and gone, that remaining thought of how we treat our family elders lingers.
But while James has added a nuanced edge to Relic that treats the antagonist of the film with sadness (rather than disgust), the horrific element of the film falls a little short. Chock full of empty jump-scares and intriguing sequences that never really go anywhere (a recurring nightmare hinting at family trauma doesn’t get fully realized), Relic is strangely devoid of any truly frightening moments that stand out for the horror fan. Furthermore, instead of building terror with atmospheric tension, Relic seems to rely on musical cues to execute its scares. Unfortunately, it rarely works. Due to a schlocky, overly repetitive score, the film’s thoughtful message is otherwise bogged down by cheap frights that don’t add anything to the film. Relic’s soundtrack turns a uniquely made film into one that seems mass-generated for a braindead audience who needs to be told when to be scared. What results is a film that seems to be conflicted about who its target audience is: does it want to be an arthouse horror film or one that is, in theory, safe for mainstream audiences?
Interestingly enough, in “Creswick,” the last short film James directed before embarking on Relic, she tackles some of the same themes that she does in this one. Similarly beautifully shot and brooding, “Creswick” gives us a glimpse into what Relic could have been if it had a tighter focus. There, James’s artistic voice shines, fully entrancing the audience with bated breath as the short plays out in horrific detail. If only some of that same vision was brought to Relic, it would make for a film that is that could easily satisfy both types of audiences. After all, she’s done it before.