Natalie Erika James’ debut horror Relic is a quiet, dread-drenched slow burn that sets out to represent the creeping horror of mental deterioration. The film centres around three generations: Edna (Robyn Nevin), the family matriarch who it seems is in the early stages, her harassed and stressed middle-aged daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer), and her free-spirited granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote).
When Kay gets a call from the police that her elderly mother has been missing for a couple of days, she and her daughter Sam return to Edna’s rambling, trinket-filled house in order to investigate. Edna is nowhere to be seen. When she re-appears a couple of days later, she has no clear memory of what has happened. After a visit from the doctor, Kay agrees to stay at the house for a couple of days. The film crawls forward from here, its creeping form echoing and reinforcing the creeping dread experienced by all three women as they navigate their way through the clutter-filled house.
The house, and thus the shot, is always filled with stuff, the detritus of the live Edna and her husband built together before he passed. In a haunting scene between grandmother and granddaughter at the film’s centre, Sam shuffles uncomfortably as Edna stares off into the darkness of a small walk-in wardrobe now filled with piles of junk. As Edna stares into the darkness, much to the discomfort of a freaked-out Sam, she says softly: “I don’t like this place.” When Sam asks her why she responds: “Since your grandfather passed, this house seems unfamiliar, bigger, somehow. This house is the only thing left. All our memories.” Then back to silence. In another eerie and poignant scene, Kay finds her mother outside trying to eat photos from a family album in a desperate attempt to consume the memories the photographs contain, memories that are slipping away from her day by day. These encounters litter the diegesis, strewn across the house, nestled in between boxes, at the threshold of locked doors, tucked away into dark corners.
Shot by Charlie Sarroff, the family house in Relic is portrayed as both unnaturally vast, with corridors that lead nowhere and doors that lead where they shouldn’t, and claustrophobically small, the clutter presses in on all sides and the film’s final section sees the house literally closing in on its inhabitants. There is a rot in the house, a rot that is spreading out from Edna, the black mould that begins to spread over her body a fleshy representation of the slow process of decay her mind is undergoing.
As many horror films do, Relic treads a very fine line in its representation of the relationship between monstrous and abject iconography and disability. Horror, in its representation of the monster figure, has been a genre that is rife with ableist imagery, where physical disability is configured onscreen to represent monstrosity.
Relic is a horror film that challenges this ableist trope, drawing on abject imagery (the decaying body; the black mould that spreads over the house) to visualise the mental and physical impact of memory loss. There are many moments in the film that, if read in isolation, could be read as ableist – in many instances Edna becomes a source of monstrosity and violence that if left unresolved could be read as a problematic vilification of someone suffering from a mental illness, again a common trope within the horror genre. However, the film’s monstrous transformation of Edna is reversed in its final moments in order to produce a nuanced and heart-wrenching portrait of a family transformed by loss.
Relic strives to represent the complexity of Edna’s battle with dementia – in some scenes, she is a passive victim, helpless and almost child-like; in others, she is aggressive and sharp-tongued. And in other scenes, she is just herself, the mother and grandmother that Kay and Sam remember. And even then, their relationships are fraught, Kay and Edna are not close, and the film captures Kay’s internal struggle when it comes to caring for a mother that she doesn’t particularly like, who she has never been close with. Relic is unapologetic in its representation of this family’s struggle; it refuses to romanticise or fully demonise the actions of its characters, instead treading the middle-ground as the camera winds its way through the women’s conversations, their dreams and their memories at the same time as it winds its way through the labyrinthine corridors of a house that, like its owner, is beginning to disintegrate.
Relic is a film that demonstrates that the horror genre, and its associated iconography of monstrosity, has the potential to explore issues such as mental illness and complex family dynamics in ways that seem more visceral, more nuanced, and often more ‘real’ than documentaries. Relic resists and inverts the horror genre’s exploitation of physical disability and instead centres on the monstrous body and putting it to work as a visceral metaphor for mental illness.