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Responses to cinema are, by nature, highly personal, with the very best movies tapping into wellsprings of emotion already deeply embedded in the viewer’s psyche. This may go some way toward explaining why Relic, the extraordinary debut feature from writer-director Natalie Erika James, left me a total wreck – overwhelmed and in floods of tears. Yet I’d wager that this spine-tingling, heartbreaking tale of a woman with Alzheimer’s becoming lost in the labyrinthine corridors of her mind, and her home, has a universal power that will resonate with anyone, regardless of personal experience.
Emily Mortimer is Kay, the somewhat distanced daughter of Edna (Robyn Nevin), an elderly widow who lives alone in a remote house in Victoria, Australia. Local police check in on Edna regularly but – to her evident shame – Kay has been less attentive, dismissive of Edna’s claims that an intruder has been coming into her house. When Edna goes missing, Kay and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) hurry to the increasingly decrepit family home to search for her in the woodsy environs of Creswick. But when Edna mysteriously reappears, she has no memory of where she’s been.
Practical Kay wants to move her mother to a Melbourne care home; idealistic Sam wants to move in with her gran and take care of her. Yet it’s clear that there are forces at work that neither of them fully understand, forces foreshadowed in James’s award-winning 2017 short Creswick (which she also co-wrote with Christian White), in which a father tells his daughter: “It’s like someone else is living here.”
While Kay is haunted by dreams of a cabin riddled with creeping black mould, Sam finds her memories of the benign gran she loves usurped by a more volatile presence, prone to random aggression and plagued by paranoia. Meanwhile, the house itself starts to mirror the contortions of Edna’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mind, full of strange turns and unremembered passages that give physical form to her own sense of fear and bewilderment.
Described by James as a film about “the true terrors” of “grieving for the loss of someone while they’re still alive”, Relic (like its Australian stablemate The Babadook) is a horror movie with a heart, a film that uses a surreal narrative to tell a story absolutely rooted in reality. There’s a touch of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher in the psychogeography that James evokes, slipping subtly from the classic, naturalistic tones of early scenes into more expressionist darkness as we venture deeper into the lonely carnivals of Edna’s mind.
There are echoes, too, of the dream logic of Eraserhead, with Relic making emotional rather than logical “sense”. But it’s the awesome sense of longing, loss and, ultimately, love that is the film’s strongest suit, putting it in the same category as Hideo Nakata’s Japanese masterpiece Dark Water, which similarly blended fears with tears to soul-shaking effect.
Brilliant makeup effects and physical animatronics keep things real, recalling the plastic realities and visual metaphors of early David Cronenberg. Meanwhile, composer Brian Reitzell and sound designer Robert Mackenzie work in perfect harmony, creating a soundbed that blends diegetic noise with loud silences to keep the audience on their toes. Released in the UK under the FrightFest Presents label, this Halloween offering contains plenty to scare but much more to make you care.
Source: The Guardian
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