When it comes to matters of monstrous kin, modern horror movies tend to turn on the “bad seed” angle, viewing demonic or killer children through the eyes of their feckless parents. But rarely do we see the opposite — an elder parent’s devolution into madness through the eyes of their adult brood. Enter “Relic,” the feature debut from Japanese-Australian filmmaker Natalie Erika James co-written by Christian White, which shows an 85-year-old matriarch’s descent into otherworldly insanity from the points of view of her daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer), and granddaughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote).
It’s safe to say that James’ film now owns the corner on the market of horror movies about women watching their mothers come hideously undone. More creepy than scary, “Relic” serves up a bevy of chilling original ideas with enormous potential that, while occasionally too metaphor-driven, still manage to freak you out, landing on a final image that ranks among the most harrowing of contemporary horror.
Upon news of her mother Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) unexplained disappearance, Kay is summoned back to Edna’s dilapidating rural home, bringing along Sam for some amateur sleuthing. There, they find unsettling clues pointing to Edna’s spiking dementia, including post-it notes tacked about the house that range from the banal (“turn off the tap”) to the menacing (“do not follow it”) and lonely (“am I loved?”). The house already has a dark history at its roots, as Kay’s great grandfather died alone, of dementia, years ago in a cabin on the property whose deteriorated bones were repurposed into the home that now stands. Inside, black mold grows up and down the walls and fixtures like moss.
Just as mysteriously as she vanished, Edna reappears as if from nowhere, with no memory of where she’s been or why she went missing. But this isn’t the same Edna that her daughter and granddaughter, from whom she’s become inexplicably estranged over the years, know and love. Her dementia has worsened, and she now has a football-sized dark mark — eerily similar to that omnipresent black mold — spreading like an inky blot at the center of her chest.
Edna oscillates between moments of sharp clarity, fuzziness, and sudden rage as her failing memory begins to outpace her, and Nevin’s performance deftly carries all her character’s swinging moods, and her heartbreaking desperation as the lights of her mind begin to burn out. While Kay, portrayed with steely brittleness by Mortimer, is resigned to her mom’s condition, granddaughter Sam tries to hold onto whatever brief waves of sanity come and go from Edna. In a tender moment, Edna gifts a family ring to Sam, only to violently yank it off her granddaughter’s finger in the next scene, bewildered as to why she’s wearing it. It soon becomes clear, through a series of surreal, Francis Bacon-like dream sequences and bumps in the night, that something is taking over Edna.
The house is an impressive feat of art direction, a creaky set of rooms within rooms and corridors that don’t make geographical sense. Like the Overlook Hotel, you’re never quite sure where you stand. Sam stumbles into what’s essentially a portal in a walk-in closet that leads her into an alternate version of the house — or is it an alternate dimension? — that expands and contracts, and seems to exist within the main house, as impossible as that may be. The house very might well be the true villain of “Relic,” even as Edna grows unhinged and takes on a monstrous physical form in the film’s final hour.
Likely to annoy and seduce audiences in equal measure, the nerve-plucking sound design is like a running tap that won’t stop dripping. It injects an undercurrent of terror even into rare moments of hope. Visually, the motifs of black mold and rot aren’t exactly subtle, either, but they contribute to an overall pervasive weather of sickness and death.
In the body horror department, director James is indifferent to overkill, zooming in on Edna’s perishing physicality as an evil presence possesses her. While the hole in Edna’s chest, or her slowly unraveling flesh, certainly conjures images of David Cronenberg, the master of corporeal violence, James is less tongue-in-cheek here, treating the horrific decomposition of the body as a deadly serious physical manifestation of old age that becomes, by the film’s end, almost contagious.
“Relic” exists firmly in the realm of allegory, and if you’re looking for answers to the film’s spooky ambiguities and uncanny set pieces, you won’t find them. James is more concerned with creating an atmospheric rumination on intergenerational trauma, death, and dying that also happens to be a striking horror movie. In that sense, “Relic” belongs on the shelf next to “The Babadook” and “Hereditary” as highbrow, female-led horror movies that dwell in the slow burn. The movie concludes with easily one of the most disturbing, enigmatic, and strangely touching final scenes you’re likely to experience all year, a real showstopper that finds mother, daughter, and granddaughter coming together to bridge an ineffable gap. It’s a tacit way to embrace of the transformative power of death, and what waits on the other side.
“Relic” arrives on VOD and in select theaters and drive-ins from IFC Midnight on July 10.