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Relic is a horror film that’s abnormally effective because it’s about something that’s going to happen to us all – old age (if we’re lucky) and death. As it opens Grandma Edna (Robyn Nevin) has gone missing. And so her daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) have turned up at her house to find out what’s happened. Grandma has got to the age where forgetfulness is nibbling away at her memory, and physically she’s at the point where family members are having whispered conversations about her which Grandma isn’t party to.

That doesn’t sound like a horror film, and in fact you could strip out all the horror elements from Natalie Erika James’s psychologically driven feature debut and have a perfectly serviceable drama about ageing, dementia, dying and the guilt felt by family members who probably should have done something sooner but didn’t realise how far down the road things had got.

But horror it is, increasingly so as the film moves forwards, becoming more genre-specific and J-horror-inflected as Relic wends its way towards a grand guignol finale that manages to be gruesome and yet touching at the same time.

Grandma returns, in fine fettle, in top shape in fact, feisty as you like, to the relief and bemusement of Kay and Sam, but there’s a dark mark on her chest, an extreme bruise, perhaps, a “tell” indicating that all is not well. And as time goes by the bruise gets bigger, an external manifestation of inner decay, as Kay bustles about trying to find a care home that can accommodate her mother, who isn’t sure she needs that sort of looking after.

Grandma in the bath
Bathtime for Grandma

In a little filmed intro to this film’s debut at Sundance, James stated that Relic is about dementia, and that she was prompted to make it after watching her own grandmother disappear in a cloud of forgetting. It’s also more generally about ageing and dying, and how hard it is for those who see it happening to someone they love.

It’s about guilt too, with Kay as the most guilty party. She’s the one who should have been stepping in well before things got to this point. James is closer to the age of the granddaughter, played by Bella Heathcote, the conscience of the film, though events are seen almost exclusively from the point of view of Kay. A smart choice casting the properly excellent Mortimer then.

There are some simple but effective touches, like the way James’s camera catches Heathcote’s dewy young skin as she takes a bath – no prurience – and silently compares it to Kay’s more middle-aged and Edna’s old flesh. Decay as a fact of life and a harbinger of death.

Grandma isn’t gaga at first, and her journey towards full-bore dementia is a switchback of ups and downs, of helplessness and fragility snapping to lucidity and vigour… and back. Another astute observation.

This is a film with a good eye for an image, shot coolly, lit subduedly (by DP Charlie Sarroff) and making full use of Grandma’s big old house, whose suddenly rediscovered forgotten corners act as a metaphor for Edna’s crumbling mind and whose physicality serves as a reminder that supportive family structures have been shattered by the demands of modern lifestyles.

I was gripped by it as if by the throat. It’s a tough watch at times, particularly towards the end, but it’s shot through with a tenderness that’s unusual, especially as it shifts into its creepy, proper-horror-film finale. Put James down on the list of innovative female Australian directors headed by Jennifer Kent, of The Babadook fame.

All in all it’s required viewing, though there is the slight irony that if you’re the right age to be receptive to this film, you’re probably going to be least keen to watch it.

Relic – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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