From big-budget reboot The Invisible Man to gruesome body horror Possessor via chilling eco-parable The Beach House, 2020 has served up a scary movie for every taste. Relic, Australian director Natalie Erika James’ debut, is the latest to arrive in cinemas – and it’s also one of the best.
When elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing, daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) travel to her isolated rural home outside Melbourne to investigate. When they arrive, Edna is nowhere to be found – but they do find some ominous black mould growing on the wall, while strange noises rumble through the old house. That night, Kay has a nightmare in which she sees a corpse rotting in a woodland cabin. The next day, Edna returns to the house, barefoot, muddy and with an alarming black bruise on her chest.
As a result of her wanderings, Kay plans to move Edna into a retirement home, given her evident inability to look after herself. Sam is unhappy with this but we can understand Kay’s predicament when she catches Edna sleepwalking and later finds her in the garden ripping pages from a family photo album and eating them. Dementia is settling in. Sam has her own puzzling moment with Edna when her grandmother accuses her of stealing a ring, though she had previously given it to Sam as a gift.
James began writing Relic on a trip to see her own grandmother who had Alzheimer’s. Co-writer Christian White also had a grandparent with the disease. Their shared personal experience in dealing with dementia and its effects is very important. While it’s an incredibly scary film at times, with no shortage of creeping shadows, nightmarish visions and ghoulish groaning, there is also subtlety. Great care has been taken to make Edna an empathetic character when she could have easily been written as a straight-up monster. Nevin’s performance is exceptional and brings a confused, damaged woman to life. At times Edna is brittle, helpless and baffled but never a caricature. Mortimer and Heathcote are also excellent as women who must watch, helpless, as their beloved relative drifts away.
Relic was produced by Jake Gyllenhaal’s production company Nine Stories and executive produced and financed by The Russo Brothers’ firm AGBO. It’s not every day a major Hollywood star and the directors of the highest-grossing film ever made (Avengers: Endgame) show such faith in a debut film but their backing is shrewd. James has created a moving, frightening film that deserves great success and a wide audience.
- Director: Natalie Erika James
- Starring: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote
- Release date: Out now on Stan