Written and directed by Natalie Erika James and co-written by Christian White, a daughter, mother and grandmother are haunted by a manifestation of dementia that consumes their family’s home. Starring: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Jeremy Stanford and Chris Bunton.
The last couple of years there has been a new breed of horror, one that not only embraces the entertaining and shocking but dives into the psychological to really get under your skin, something that had been lost in the fray of shock tactics. Relic is one of those films, it immediately puts you on edge; the way that James introduces so many small details, that when focused upon so intensely create fear out of thin air, is phenomenal and both a joy and a terror to watch. The style that James uses means that instead of trying to use cheap shock tactics, it’s patient and purposeful, it tugs at your imagination to try and fill the gaps of where the story is headed, without ever revealing too much until just the right moment. Each step forward might not be a revelation but it continually ups the ante of its suspense until it has such a hold on you that you’re either holding your breath, on the edge of your seat, covering your eyes or all of the above. It’s so wonderfully consistent in the fear and dread that’s built throughout with subtle, haunting shots, by doing so with small details it cleverly uses the audience’s imagination to its advantage rather than trying force it in its own direction.
Before you even get to the writing, all those terrific visual choices are supported by fantastic editing that’s sharp and moves in such a suave fashion, the way one shot can move to the next is effortlessly mesmerising. James and White write the story in such a way that it moves with such a steady pace, it’s forever moving forwards but never rushing, allowing these slight hints at its destination to come through but providing a wide enough range of interpretation to not give it away. That’s exactly the reason why that when the tide turns, it does so swiftly and powerfully, throwing you even further out of your comfort zone with things becoming a vastly intensified version of what you’ve known so far. However, the film also presents itself as a tale of family relationships, of dealing with age and the complicated decisions that follow to try and both take care of yourself and the ones you love. It’s an aspect that feeds well into the rest of the story, it adds risk and danger in a very different manner but it works succinctly with the darker elements of the film.
Nevin, Heathcote and Watson make for a fantastic trio, all providing different aspects and perspectives to the story. Nevin’s performance as the forgetful and eery Edna is almost disturbing, she does so well to physically represent the changes to her character as the story moves on, her body language and facial expressions add so much to the suspense and fear that the film builds. Watson provides a much more logical viewpoint, having a challenging relationship with both her mother and daughter, simply trying to do her best by both of them while struggling to connect. Heathcote lands right in the middle, a simpler, perhaps even more naïve perspective of her family, more easily disturbed by the situation and gives audiences a very sympathetic character to invest in and see the story through her eyes. Each performance may pose very different challenges for its actor but all of them bring a very gripping and thrilling quality.
The only place where things take a turn from that consistently sharp and suspenseful tone is the ending, every aspect builds and builds until it reaches this fantastically warped crescendo of horror but just after it reaches the peak, it slows down immensely and loses that edge. What then continues is a drawn-out scene which feels as though they’re trying much too hard to reconcile every aspect of the film or to overtly explain what just happened rather than letting the audience figure it out. It’s extremely disappointing to undercut the effectiveness of that suspense and fear with something that feels overly sentimental, it reaches the finish line with a bang but then crosses it with a whimper.
Relic is packed with fear, suspense, dread and best of all is genuinely scary. It takes its time and does so in such a clever way, finding horror in the details rather than trying to throw it in your face, the direction, cinematography and editing all work together to provide an immaculate visual that’s thrilling to watch. Yes, there is one particular aspect that’s extremely frustrating but it speaks to its quality that despite that, it’s highly recommended that you see it because it’s such a gripping watch that is both elegant and terrifying, a difficult combination to achieve. James has well and truly shown that she’s one to watch, it’s almost hard to believe that it’s her feature debut.