Relic is a nifty work of ambiguous horror built on the duality of destruction and creation.
Relic, the debut feature from Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James, is a haunted house drama with a thrillingly cerebral core. Edna, the family matriarch (Australian theater veteran Robyn Nevin), is prone to wandering and relies on post-it reminders scattered around her remote country house to function. After going missing for a brief spell, with no memory of her time away, her workaholic daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and teenage granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) return home to watch over her until they can devise a plan.
Despite its setting, Relic is far more astute than your standard haunted house flick. Within the walls of this perpetually dim and mold-ridden country estate floats an insidious, inescapable presence that we come to realize is Edna’s rapidly deteriorating mind. “Don’t follow it,” reads one of her more sinister post-its, but she has no choice: no one can withstand the insistent pull of dementia. Meanwhile, Kay is plagued by recurring nightmares of her great-grandfather, who lived in a smaller house on the property and was left to die alone of mental illness. A piece of stained glass from that house is embedded within Edna’s front door, linking past to present and prophesying all three womens’ eventual demise, which is heavily implied to be hereditary.
James has spoken candidly about her inspiration – watching her grandmother succumb to Alzheimer’s – and Nevin unflinchingly captures the essence of a once-independent person reduced to an unstable and unrecognizable husk by age and disease. James and co-writer Christian White portray Edna as both a fragile old woman who can’t be left alone and an unpredictable harridan prone to fits of temper and mood swings. Moments of forgetfulness quickly escalate into grotesque acts of self-harm and bizarre, inexplicable outbursts. It’s unclear whether she’s possessed by a supernatural force, slowly losing her mind, or acting out an ancient family imperative.
The home, as a traditionally feminine space, has long functioned as both a haven and a prison. Sam might know this instinctively but it doesn’t stop her from offering to move in, tacitly situating herself as Edna’s protector and replacement. As the youngest, she’s sheltered by her age: she has no memories of spectral ancestors and no reason to ever consider her own mortality. Yet, in the film’s climactic third act, her youthful innocence is the perfect foil to her grandmother’s decaying mind. Trapped in a serpentine space devoid of reason, logic, or meaning, she experiences firsthand the meandering horror of Edna’s warped psyche. Her only escape is to smash through the walls, a moment of ingenuity that mirrors an earlier scene, when she crawled through a dog flap to unlock the front door from inside.
If that scene is meant to evoke a birth of sorts, so too does Relic’s strange, poignant finale. Rather than shun the ghoulish, skeletal wreck that Edna has become, Kay instead cares for her, breaking the cycle of neglect that started with her great-grandfather. After gently stripping off layers of rotting skin, we see a small black creature that resembles a fetus or alien, aged but somehow innocent, even pure. Like the ending of Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, a familiar but deeply unknowable being is excised and a dark inner core revealed – yet here, James opts for tenderness rather than violence, creation rather than destruction. This choice makes Sam’s final discovery all the more chilling. These women may have found a semblance of peace, but it comes at the expense of their bodies, minds, and possibly souls.