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Relic Review

July 6, 2020 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Relic
9
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Relic Review  

Directed by: Natalie Erika James
Written by: Natalie Erika James and Christian White

Starring:
Emily Mortimer – Kay
Robyn Nevin – Edna
Bella Heathcote – Sam
Jeremy Stanford – Alex
Chris Bunton – Jamie
Christina O’Neill – Grace
Catherine Glavicic – Doctor Stanley
Steve Rodgers – Constable Mike Adler
John Browning – Nursing Home Man
Robin Northover – Elderly Man

Running Time: 89 minutes
Rated R for some horror violence/disturbing images, and language.

As rough as 2020 has been as a year, there’s one thing that I have to give it: it’s been a rather good year for horror to date. Sure, there have been some startlingly bad films from The Turning and Fantasy Island to The Boy II. But for every bad horror flick to come around, it seems like a good one pops up just in time to counteract it. The Invisible Man is one of the biggest hits of the (admittedly-stymied) year, and it’s been joined in the genre by smaller but great efforts like independent darling The Lodge and VOD efforts like Becky and VFW.

And for all those successes, we ain’t seen nothing yet. At least, we haven’t until we see Relic, which debuts on VOD and in limited theaters and drive-ins this Friday. Natalie Erika James’ directorial debut stars Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, and Bella Heathcote in a story of slow, spiraling horror that ranks as one of the most impressive directorial horror debuts in recent memory, on par with Jordan Peele’s Get Out or Ari Aster’s Hereditary.

Mortimer plays Kay, an Australian woman who goes along with her daughter Sam (Heathcote) to check in on her elderly mother Edna (Nevin) after neighbors report she hasn’t been seen in a few days. Arriving at the home, Kay and Sam find it empty and Edna missing. A police-coordinated search of the area turns nothing up as Sam and Kay start putting the disheveled house – which shows signs of Edna suffering from dementia – back together.

A few days later, Edna turns back up out of the blue seeming perfectly okay outside of a bruise on her sternum. Kay suspects that Edna may be losing more of her mental faculties than she suggests, and there’s evidence to that effect such as post-its all around with instructions like “Take Pills.” But other notes say more ominous things, like “Don’t Follow It.”

Sam and Kay have different ideas of what to about the matter, but there are other signs that things aren’t right. The walls knock, and the house seems to be falling apart. The motion-activated outside lights turn on randomly at night. Is there something more sinister going on here, and what does the stained-glass window in the front door have to do with it all?

While there is undoubtedly a lot going on in Relic, it is also the definition of a “slow burn” type of horror film. James’ script takes its time building the characters and establishing the setting of the house and its wooded environs. This is the sort of film that annoys a certain segment of horror fans, running a gradual build and favoring a healthy dollop of mood over a ton of thrills or heart-stopping scare moments.

There’s a pitfall there that a lot of films fall into, losing their audience along the way. James avoids that pitfall by instilling a sense of dread and tension amid the more melancholic character work in the first act. James’ script builds up the characters quite nicely, firmly establishing the relationships between them that avoid most of the tropes of multigenerational dynamics between women. There are some of the broad strokes of that; Kay is concerned about Sam’s decision to exit college, and there’s a bit of estrangement between Kay and Edna. But the relationships feel authentic and lived-in thanks to James’ dialogue and stellar, understated work by Mortimer, Nevin, and Heathcote.

As the story progresses, James’ themes start to become clearer. The idea for this film was inspired by her experience with her grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, and that harrowing experience pervades this film. Nevin’s performance as Edna feels heartbreakingly real; she captures the essence of a sharp, strong woman who is slowly losing her mental faculties.

More importantly, James treats Edna and her dementia with respect. There’s a temptation among some horror films to use vulnerable characters with neuroatypical conditions like Alzheimer’s or autism as nothing more victims of the supernatural events that surround them; the abysmal 2016 film The Darkness is a good example of that. Relic avoids that trap, instead using Edna’s failing health as a way to explore the brutal and horrifying ways that dementia can attack someone’s identity.

The scares may not come be non-stop early on, but that’s not to say they aren’t there. James relies on the setting to keep viewers in a constant state of unease, so that when a shadowy figure appears in the background it’s terrifying without needing to jump up into the camera frame. As the film progresses, Kay’s dreams about the property’s past and Kay’s investigation of why a neighbor teen no longer comes to visit deepens the eeriness.

This all sets up for a third act where things go off the rails in the best possible way. Cinematographer Charlie Sarroff and production designer Steven Jones-Evans put together a set of literal twists and turns that push the characters and the audience to some very frightening places, with James escalating the tension by way of some grotesque developments.

The end of the film will almost certainly be the most controversial and polarizing aspect. As I am loathe to reveal too much, suffice it to say that it added an essential part of James’ themes about elder care, generational relationships, and mental struggle. It worked for me; it’s an end that provides a less neat and satisfying conclusion for audiences wanting something a bit more mainstream, to be sure. But gives the film a power in its message that it would have otherwise lacked, elevating it to being of the best horror films I’ve seen in a good long while.

Relic is available in select theaters, drive-ins, and on Digital/VOD starting July 10th.

9.0
The final score: review Amazing
The 411
Natalie Erika James' directorial debut in Relic benefits from James' assured skill as a writer and director along with a trio of top-notch performances from Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, and Bella Heathcote. The slow burn feel of the movie may wear on some audiences. However, James' skill with mood keeps it engaging and the power of her story resonates even when things start to really get frightening in the final act. With a final sequence that will likely be as divisive as it is effective, Relic stakes its mark as the best horror film -- and indeed, the best film overall -- of 2020 to date.
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Relic, Jeremy Thomas