By Christian DiMartino
Remember whenever the horror genre was pretty disposable? There was a period of time in which any time a horror movie was released, more often than not they just featured cheap jump scares and lots of gore, anything to make the thirteen year olds squeal and have a great time. Perhaps it’s because plenty of filmmakers assumed that there were no more tricks up their sleeve. Well, in recent years, filmmakers have realized that they can work wonders with these old tricks, and honestly there have been quite a few excellent horror films in recent memory, from Hereditary (the best), Get Out, Midsommar, The VVitch, to one of the more recent spellbinders, The Lodge. Add Relic to the list too.
Relic, like The Lodge, is one of the year’s best films that I have come across. What a strange time to be alive, in which a genre that produced nothing but groans for many years is now making Best Lists. Well, surely enough, Relic is one of them. Anyone expecting something consistently scary should probably look elsewhere, because Relic is indeed a slow burn, and one in which not all of its answers are clear once the credits roll… and yet it still more interesting than a lot of films I’ve come across this year.
The usually excellent Emily Mortimer is once again strong here as Kay, a single mother who, with her daughter Sam (Bella Heathecoate) receive word that their mother/grandmother (Robyn Nevin) has gone missing. Kay and Sam head to her house with the hopes that she’ll return. Then, one morning, she does, having no clue where she went or how she got back. The assumption is that, in her age, she has developed Alzheimers.
Nevin is particularly odd and creepy, but the audience is left to wonder if it’s simply her age and her disability that is making her act in such a way, or if there is something evil afoot. Things around the house begin rotting and there are a number of strange occurrences, but Kay and Sam have their own problems, and they sort of get in the way while other things are happening around them.
Relic does depend upon old tropes, such as an eerie potentially haunted house in the middle of the woods, a helpless doctor, the need to escape the house, and so on. Yet the only way to make this material work would be to take the old and somehow make it new, and that is just what they have done. The film is the directorial debut of Natalie Erika James, and judging from this film, she’s a true talent to look out for. She has a pretty keen eye for detail, and she also does a strong job of building suspense and perfectly setting the film’s eerie tone.
The film does burn slowly, but it isn’t slow to the point of boredom. James just tells the story her way, and she tells it well. The film builds to a conclusion that is really fascinating. It is creepy, gross and rather grotesque… and also, in a strange way, beautiful. Not going to lie, the reason for the beauty didn’t seem obvious to me at first. When the film was over, I wasn’t fully sure what to make of it, but I knew I’d seen something pretty unique. Upon a trip to Google though, James herself had an explanation, and the explanation not only makes me want to see Relic again, but it also makes the film significantly more thoughtful than any horror movie you will see in a long time.