[Editor’s Note: The following article contains MAJOR spoilers for the end of “Relic.”]
While haunted house films have historically been the realm of male directors, the home is traditionally women’s territory. The haunted house movie has always been about family trauma, dilemma, and emotional stress, usually from from the perspective of a woman lead or matriarch. It only feels right to have such themes in the hands of a woman director, and “Relic” director Natalie Erika James has the genre chops to back it up. Recent auteur horror has succeeded by employing the form to explore mental illness (“The Babadook”), inherited trauma (“Hereditary”), and domestic violence (“The Invisible Man”). In “Relic,” James applies a grotesquely intimate lens on the horrors of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
For the Japanese-Australian filmmaker, the subject of her first feature was intensely personal.
“My grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and a lot of the film came from observation in her relationship with my mother changing over time,” James said in a phone interview. The seed of the idea came from a 2013 trip to visit to Japan, where James experienced, for the first time, her grandmother not recognizing her. “It really stuck with me, this person that had only ever looked at you with love in their eyes, looking at you as stranger, was really impactful. She also lived in this quite creepy traditional Japanese house [that] always used to freak me out as a kid…so there was something in those two things that came together.”
Set in Australia, “Relic” stars Emily Mortimer as Kay, a woman who returns to her mother’s house after she goes missing, bringing her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) along with her. The film revolves primarily around the three women, and the specter of inherited mental decline reverberates down the generations. The matriarch Edna (Robyn Nevin) is haunted by an unseen phantom, talking to and eventually harming herself, as her increasingly fearful daughter and granddaughter attempt to reach her through the fog.
By the film’s end, Kay makes the terrifying choice to embrace her mother’s golem. After carrying her shriveled mother’s body into bed like a baby, Kay tenderly peels off the disintegrating layers of her mother’s skin, laying down next to the shadowy menace. It is at once intimate and grotesque, delivering that body horror disgust factor while remaining grounded in the characters’ emotional journey.
“There are so many horror films that leave you with this really nihilistic view of the world, it kind of leaves you cold,” said James. “Whereas for me, the empathy and the humanist fragility you see in the menace in the end of the film is kind of why I made this film in the first place. It wasn’t to demonize people with Alzheimer’s; it was to talk about the experience and how horrific that can be, not just for their loved ones but also for that person as well.”
James was raised on Japanese and Korean horror, breezily rattling off the films of Hideo Nakata (“The Ring”), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (“Pulse”), Kim Jee-woon (“A Tale of Two Sisters”), and Takashi Miike (“Audition”) as influences. She credits those films with impressing upon her the importance of empathy in horror.
“[The film] always had that empathetic view of the menace, which I think a lot of Asian horror does as well,” said James. “If you think about the ghosts in these Japanese and Korean horror films, they’re often the wronged woman who is acting out as revenge or wrath. A lot of it ends in an act of empathy, or you have to put them to rest in some way, so I think it’s in the vein of those kinds of films.”
Once she had the script down, James attracted some high-profile investors. “Relic” boasts the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal as well as Joe and Anthony Russo as executive producers. The Russo Brothers came on later, and James found their input invaluable but not overbearing.
“They’re such masters of their craft and such great storytellers. It’s awesome working with EPs who bring that,” she said. “I would say they were really hands-on in the room during post-production, and it’s so great to get notes and also a bunch of suggestions for how to solve your problems as well. I learned a lot from them. They definitely weren’t prescriptive. It was very much a process.”
Though the film is about mortality, there is plenty of birth imagery in “Relic,” such as an early shot of Sam crawling through a doggie door and another compelling scene of Kay emerging through a battered down fireplace. James is currently working on the script for her next film with her “Relic” collaborator Christian White, which will focus more deliberately on birth and motherhood.
“It was a conscious thing that we noticed, and I think this film is very much about mortality,” she said. “My next film is very much about birth and creation, so there’s ideas that will bleed over. It’s a Japanese folk horror kind of in the vein of ‘The Wicker Man’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ and is very much about motherhood and control over the female body.”
“Relic” arrives on VOD and in select theaters and drive-ins from IFC Midnight on July 10.