Great horror movies are often built on guilt, and that’s the case with Relic. The film has creeping mold, strange sounds in the night, and gore to spare, but at heart it’s about the increasing shame a middle-aged woman feels for the distance she’s kept from her aging mother.
Kay (Emily Mortimer) faces this guilt when her eighty-something mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), goes missing from her dilapidated home in rural Australia. Kay and her own daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcoate), visit the house upon being contacted by the police. (“It’s been a few weeks,” Kay mumbles, looking down, after being asked when she last spoke to her mother.) Settling into the house, unnerved by the stained walls and fleshy candles Edna carves as a hobby, Kay and Sam wonder what to do—until Edna inexplicably returns one night subtly … changed.
Natalie Erika James makes her feature directing debut with Relic, working from a script she wrote with Christian White, and she displays the same shockingly assured command of horror form that Ari Aster showcased in Hereditary (the two films also share familial thematic concerns). James’ patience with the camera allows little details—those candles, an eerie stained-glass window in the center of Edna’s front door—to seep, insidiously, into our consciousness. The movie’s biggest scare, meanwhile, comes not from violence or gore or a juiced-up soundtrack, but a slow, disorienting gesture that I won’t spoil here.
The three leads all give strong performances, in different registers. Mortimer’s emotional exhaustion plays off well against Heathcoate’s youthful optimism, while Nevin, as the mysterious Edna, walks a fine line in a role that’s constantly toying with both our sympathies and our fears. In the end, Relic depicts dementia as a demonic force, something that can’t be killed without killing the person it’s possessed. The movie’s shocking, emotional climax sits in that tension, asking Kay—asking all of us—how we might still love the helplessly monstrous.