Director: Natalie Erika James
Stars: Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote, Robyn Nevin
With most UK cinemas shuttered, you might be hard-pressed to find a new set of scares this Halloween, but consider the arrival of Natalie Erika James’ new Australian offering, which has plenty of chills to suit your needs this October 31st. Indeed, chilly is a fine way to describe the atmosphere of this piece. It has that cold, bloodless vibe that typifies a lot of so-called ‘elevated horror’; those somewhat heavy-handed signifiers that what’s in store will be, bluntly, no fun at all.
Still, what Relic may lack in good humour in more than makes up for in terms of atmosphere and contemplative woe. Natalie Erika James has a way about her. She’s able to establish a sense of palpable fear in a sparingly short space of time. It’s there from the off. Kay (Emily Mortimer) arrives at her mother’s rural home, and immediately we’re submerged in the dread of discovering a body; chills reminiscent of Betty and Rita prying into Diane Selway’s musty apartment in Mulholland Drive.
Kay’s mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), is missing. Three days gone now. Kay and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), arrive at the old homestead fearing the worst, also noting a number of changes around the property. Edna appears to have feathered the place with post-it note reminders, suggestive of a decaying memory. Other alterations are more worrying. A new latch to keep something out. The boarded-up dog door. Edna’s cosy armchair turned away from the TV and toward the window, as though she’s been watching out for something. Through these discoveries, James feathers in a sense of dark history, as though we’ve dived right into the movie’s own sequel, and that Sam and Kay might be new lambs to the slaughter in an ongoing malaise.
Edna reappears with no memory of where she’s been, furthering the escalating sense that her mind is going, but still there are worries around the house that something more is happening. Shadows in the halls. Sounds in the walls. Dark stains above the mantelpiece suggestive of some sinister infection taking hold of the very building. This spreading sense of rot and decay in the homestead echoes the downturn in Edna’s mental faculties. Local boy Jamie (Chris Bunton) shies from setting foot inside. James plays with a sense of place entwined with the psychology of its inhabitants, connecting Relic to J-horror mainstays like Dark Water or Ju-On.
James’ camera (expertly guided by DP Charlie Sarroff) most commonly lurks or creeps. It lingers in doorways as opposed to joining James’ characters in whichever room they’re present in. Because of this, we too feel like an interloper on the drama, visiting it with our prying eyes. She also observes, acutely, how ordinary objects can become inexplicably terrifying once the human mind starts to spiral with fear. One of Relic‘s (many) effective moments comes from a washing machine as it knocks against the wall aggressively, furthering the sense of a place that’s as alive as those within it… and at odds with them. A scene in which Sam rushes down the stairs is impregnated with the fear of her falling. Not that she might trip; but that she might be tripped.
Through the prism of her story, James also gets to examine the temperaments of three generations of women. How each interacts with the other two. Her trio of actors provide her with fine work. Nevin makes Edna resilient, frustrated and closeted with secrets (both intentional and not of her volition). Mortimer’s Kay is a practical person who tries to tourniquet her hurts with actions and solutions. Heathecote’s Sam, the youngest, is more emotionally open and, in a sense, the most vulnerable because of it.
Via Relic, James finds a way to physically manifest the fears we keep of losing touch with ourselves and our identities. She imagines the interior dendrites and axons of the brain as actual corridors folding in on themselves; the way Escher made us think of a mind collapsing in on itself. Anyone with deeply held concerns for the quality of life of an elderly relative may find the ending of Relic surprisingly emotional. And while Jennifer’s Kent’s The Babadook might seem like an obvious and simplistic touchstone (being another high-profile Ozzie horror with a congruent ‘solution’), the most appropriate spiritual connector might be literary in nature; Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves…
Those who know will know…
If you’re looking for creeps that creak rather than bump in the night, Relic might be the one for you this All Hallows Eve.