Horror has come a long way in the last 20 years evolving from a pure source of entertainment to one that delves more into the depth and nuances of what truly makes people afraid. It’s this unique ability to capture nightmares that are often very real parts of our reality that makes the genre so special. However, outside of “The Invisible Man” horror films had yet to truly capture the spirit of this insightful approach to the genre in 2020 until IFC Midnight released its latest genre feature over 4th of July weekend, “Relic”. A slow-burn horror drama starring Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin and Bella Heathcote, “Relic” explores a mother and daughter’s experiences when they decide to temporarily live with the grandmother following her days-long disappearance only to find that the woman they love and respect may be hiding a dark secret. What results is a depressing and effectively disturbing examination of a family’s struggle with the difficulties associated with one of the most destructive medical conditions in our world, dementia.
“Relic” follows mother Kay (Emily Mortimer) and daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) as they search for the family matriarch Edna (Robyn Nevin) who has gone missing. After some time Edna returns but is never the same showing signs of forgetfulness and bouts of violence mixed in with her normal personality. As Kay and Sam try to rekindle their relationships with Edna, and face roadblocks in their relationship with each other, they begin to realize something dark lies not only within Edna, but also in their own family tree. That darkness is a personified version of dementia, a collective term used to describe cognitive decline that includes memory loss, loss of communication skills and other mental impairments. While this disease can strike anyone, it’s often associated with elder people and is an all-too-common final struggle that families have to manage for their older loved ones.
“Relic” is by design a very slow movie, feeling like a two-hour experience even though it’s only an hour and a half. “Relic’s” intent never seems to be to move things along too quickly. The idea is to allow the viewer to simmer in the chaos and horror of each moment effectively putting the viewer in the shoes of the protagonists as they slowly come to realize Edna’s worsening condition an the chaotic state of her personality. It’s a smart choice and one that is the root of all the horror this movie provides. We’re not given with too many jump scares, although the finale offers some good ones. The real horror here is how effectively this film attempts to capture the terror of a real life disease in a way that speaks to horror fans taste for the supernatural without disrespecting the disease. “Relic” is frightening not because of its traditional horror elements, which are effective on their own. Rather, the true horror is the atmosphere and the idea that Edna’s condition actually happens to people in real life.
Director and co-writer Natalie Erika James does an incredible job offering us a horror masterpiece that finds a perfect middle ground that utilizes the symptoms of dementia as inspiration for a fun horror scenario while also doing justice and respect to the disease and the real effects it has on the human psyche. Adding some extra punch and dramatic flair, the film also shows us how the three women try to maintain an emotional connection through it all. They care about each other, are frustrated by the situation and each of them has to struggle with their own decisions and disagreements with what could happen next. Edna is lost and confused and tries to show compassion for her daughter and granddaughter, but feels betrayed when she does come back to reality. Sam seeks to have a closer relationship with her grandmother and care for her while Kay struggles with doing right by her mother including juggling the idea of a nursing home which creates a rift between her and Sam. In the end all three women care deeply for each other and struggle to manage what’s right and wrong in a situation they can’t control. These are problems and decisions that come with the disease and watching them play out makes for an uncomfortable fly-on-the-wall perspective that makes the film that much more effective in its mission. The revelations provided through the story, that this disease may have a deeper connection to the family beyond just Edna, thus making it the titular “relic”, only add to the impact that it has on the family as a whole and, by default, the viewer as well.
“Relic” is definitely an acquired taste. If slow burn horror with thought provoking themes isn’t your thing, and I know it’s not for everyone, “Relic” will almost surely bore and disappoint. However, its beauty is in the fear of reality it evokes not in the jump scares and supernatural elements. This is a horror movie that makes you afraid of actual potential inevitabilities in life that we can’t control and it portrays these themes in a tactful and effective manner that allows it to succeed as a frightening horror experience while also working as an effective and important family drama. “Relic” is one of those films that lingers long after you watch it mostly because it opens our eyes to things we’d rather choose to ignore which, as I said at the start, is what has made many horror movies of the last decade stand out. It’s a call to attention and a cry for understanding. It’s an uncompromising spotlight shining on one of the scariest mental diseases of our time.