Australian-Japanese director Natalie Erika James’ brilliant debut centres its horror on three generations of women as the developing dementia of the family's grandmother exposes unspoken resentments between the trio
In Mike Flanagan’s underrated 2013 horror Oculus, the ostensible antagonist may have been a haunted mirror but was really the traumatic past encroaching upon the present. In Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, it was depression; in It Comes at Night, the horror was the fear of the mind. In Relic, Australian-Japanese director Natalie Erika James’ brilliant debut feature, the terror comes from some combination of all three.
Essentially a three-hander between grandmother Edna (Nevin), middle-aged daughter Kay (Mortimer) and twenty-something Sam (Heathcote) – Relic positions three generations of women as a triptych, more a study of one woman at different points in time interacting with herself than three separate characters.
James renders age as something both terrifying and transformative, recalling the horrifying but empathetic ending to Under the Skin. After Edna goes missing from her remote home, Kay and Sam arrive to find her. On her eventual return, it’s clear that Edna is developing dementia, a condition that exposes unspoken resentments between all three of them.
Growing hints at a supernatural force driving Edna’s erratic behaviour disrupt the film’s early realism, leading to a frantic, terrifying climax and a very subtle score that makes room for every floorboard creak and intake of breath, emphasising perspective over objective reality. Indeed, the space inside Edna’s house becomes increasingly abstract and expressionistic as the new phase of her being takes hold as if the perspective has shifted from her family to her own, separating each into their own version of reality.
Released 30 Oct by Signature; certificate TBC