Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Natalie Erika James
Writer: Natalie Erika James, Christian White
Producer: Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker
Stars: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote
Kay and her daughter Sam discover Kay¡¯s mother¡¯s dementia may have taken the form of a malevolent entity haunting their home.
Everyone with elderly loved ones dreads receiving a certain kind of phone call. Kay receives one such message when a constable calls to report her elderly mother Edna went missing from Edna¡¯s secluded Australian home. Accompanied by her adult daughter Sam, Kay rushes from Melbourne to assess the situation and join the concerned search for her mother.
Kay and Sam don¡¯t immediately find much that¡¯s alarmingly amiss, but they do note several oddities. Edna installed a bolt lock on the outside of a closet door. Sam finds a note inside a sweater pocket that cryptically reads, ¡°don¡¯t follow it.¡± Kay remembers her mother mentioning someone supposedly trying to get inside her house. Both women hear jolting thumps coming from behind weirdly rotting walls.
After being gone for three days, Edna comes back. However, Edna¡¯s sudden return introduces more questions than it answers. Refusing to reveal what happened, Edna speaks to an unseen presence when she assumes no one is watching and flips her demeanor from sweet to wicked in an instant.
Whatever malevolence haunts Edna¡¯s deteriorating mind appears to infect her daughter and granddaughter too. Sam feels inexplicably curious about a secret potentially lurking inside the closet. Kay suffers from recurring nightmares involving shriveled black figures inside a decaying old cabin. If a demonic form of dementia is to blame for this strangeness, it seemingly wants to take down Kay and Sam in addition to Edna.
Think about what truly scares you. Not vampires, house spiders, or anything imaginary or irrational. Think about unavoidable realities like death or isolating concepts such as being alone.
For many, there¡¯s nothing as terrifying as confronting dementia, either as a direct victim or as someone forced to helplessly watch a friend or family member slowly wither into a skeleton of his/her former self. Imagine being unable to recognize your own child, even for a moment. Imagine being that child whose face now appears alien to the parent who raised you. ¡°Relic¡± takes every conceivable fear associated with all sides of the disease and crisply folds them into an infectiously eerie experience that turns intangible horror into tangible terror.
From physical symptoms like involuntary shaking to the cerebral side effects of temporary memory loss, ¡°Relic¡± articulates the anguish of aging in fright film form. Director Natalie Erika James and co-writer Christian White¡¯s crafty script organically incorporates sudden mood swings, Post-It note reminders for basic tasks, and commonplace moments of confusion as key hinges to the story. Themes of stubbornness, denial, self-sacrifice, and corrosion seep into each corner. Whenever ¡°Relic¡± isn¡¯t horrifying with the suggestive scares of dark shadows and unsettling atmosphere, it¡¯s heartbreaking with emotional drama such as Kay taking a personal moment for a private breakdown.
¡°Relic¡± makes those moods out of quiet camera creeps and almost imperceptible hums on the score. The lens prefers to set up in adjacent rooms and shoot through doorways too. This creates a feeling of peeking in on intimate conversations but also opens up a sense of space to echo Edna¡¯s idea of the house seemingly growing larger than she remembers it being.
Metaphoric meaning exists in every action. A scene of Edna eating torn pictures before burying a photo album symbolically reflects swallowing fractured memories. Less obvious instances have Kay turning in fright to run away rather than deal with the dilemma in front of her and Sam desperately trying to break down a wall out of both fear and frustration.
¡°Relic¡± fulfills dual roles as both a straightforward psychological thriller themed around a haunted house and a multilayered examination of Alzheimer¡¯s that can be dissected down to each detail. With its somber setting and serious performances from all three leads, nothing else in cinema tackles the terror of this topic with as much tact and creepy creativity.
Disinterested viewers may label the film¡¯s design as too entrenched in smoky pacing and allusion to be appealing. They¡¯re the lucky ones. They likely don¡¯t have the relatable experience to fully hook into the unfortunate realities behind the dark fantasy. For the rest of us though, ¡°Relic¡± hits so close to home that it can¡¯t help but be hauntingly arresting as well as entertainingly unnerving.
Review Score: 90