The perception of family is one that we have seen time and time again become the strong basis for exerting horror onto the screen for the audiences; Ari Aster’s Hereditary dealt with feelings of resentment towards parents and children, all the whilst coping with grief; Ant Timpson’s Come To Daddy deals with estranged relationships and the need to be wanted; and more classically Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining deals with abuse, addiction and the need to be better than one’s parents. With Natalie Erika James’ directorial debut Relic she explores genetic neurological deterioration and the inherent bonds that tie mothers and daughters together, through even the most horrific and damaging of times.
Emily Mortimer stars as Kay, who after her mother goes missing for a number of days, takes the decision to stay by her side as her health seemingly deteriorates. Alongside her is her own daughter Sam, played by Bella Heathcote. As they care for Edna, played by Robyn Nevin, it comes to light that there could be something sinister that dwells within the house and causes Edna’s behaviour to become increasingly more disturbing and unwired. However, discovering the cause of the unnerving presence within the home, unravels more mysteries and the truths of problematic mother-daughter relationships.
When entering this decrepit tale, the premise starts with an outlook that we’re about to either witness a traditional haunted house storyline or a classic demonic possession. The tonality of the film allows room for growth within each scene, building upon the audience’s doubts regarding how the story is going to play out and what hellish truths lie embedded within the walls of this mysterious dwelling. There are enough red herrings throughout that lead us to believe that perhaps either the house is haunted by a deceased father, or that someone is intruding within the night and causing havoc on Edna’s life or even the possibility that Edna has become possessed by something that cannot be banished. It is this continuous doubting of what’s happening that keeps the story feeling unique throughout.
Relic is perhaps a combination of all of the aforementioned tropes, however, at the core of this story is a much more human focus that helps the audience connect to the film. Serving as a metaphor for inherited diseases and how they become the defining factor to someone as they walk gradually towards the end, Relic really dives deep into how a neurological disease takes affect on the inhabitant and almost works like a possession; gradually destroying the person, bit by bit, until there is nothing left but a shell of the person they used to be. It also deals with how that takes an emotional effect on those closest, and the outlook on life once you understand that the shell you are looking at will be the eventuality that is determined for your life too. As the story of the film develops, it becomes clearer on how the house is just a physical representation of feeling lost, confused and enraged that your life is being swallowed whole by a presence that cannot be seen or banished.
As someone that lost their mother at the end of my teens, there is often much reflection around the dynamics that might have developed if time had been on my mother’s side. There is something so powerful and relatable like the mother and daughter relationship; a woman you often aspire to, yet all the whilst constantly battling with conflicting emotions. Relic displays that constant struggle to be a better daughter, to be a better mother and how when interwoven with a complex generative disease becomes something that isn’t as natural as it would seem. The representation of three generations of women shows how difficult it can be to be both mother and daughter, trying to do what’s right in every situation and often feeling like you have not succeeded. James shows that she completely understands the complicated relationships that happen between the women of the family and explores feelings of guilt, not feeling good enough, attachment, estrangement and love.
Even though Relic is terrifying at times and feels like it is designed to frighten the audience to their core, it’s got a touching side that really has something special to it. There were a few occasions in which it felt a little confusing to watch, but those were fleeting moments that were easy to overlook when compared to the rest of the film. Relic lives within the same sub-genre of films where even though horror is one of the predominant features, what the story is really about it is the horrors of humanity and life itself. Those relationships that we spend years building are easily torn down by invisible demons that present themselves as our friends, only to destroy everything we love.
Relic is a heart-breaking film that does what it is intended to do by allowing the audience to live in dread the whole way through, and expect to confront something nightmare-inducing towards the end of the film. However, the demon that must be faced is something more sinister than any infernal creature that we could have conjured in our minds. Human, real and melancholic in its approach to forcing us to confront the strange, yet comforting relationship we harbour with our parents.
Directed by: Natalie Erika James
Written by: Natalie Erika James, Christian White
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote