Dementia is a horrific syndrome that many of us, directly or indirectly, have to experience and it has never looked so terrifying on-screen thanks to Natalie Erika Jones’ stunning directorial debut. Relic is a horror drama that captures the nightmare of having to witness the eventual loss of a parent whilst being reminded that we all share the same, inevitable fate.

After matriarch Edna (Robyn Nevin) disappears from her country home, daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) arrive in search of her and find clues dotted about the house that point towards Edna’s deteriorating psyche: rotting bowls of fruit, strange changes to the furniture layout and post-it notes with worrying reminders. Edna mysteriously reappears and Kay and Sam stay for a few days to keep an eye on her only to witness Edna grow more violent and unpredictable. The heart of the film is not the horror elements but the three generations of women and their relationships with one another. Kay accepts that she is slowly losing her mother, who clearly needs proper care, but breaks down in guilt when viewing a care home. Sam is more optimistic and offers to move in to look after her grandmother but quickly realises just how difficult the situation with Edna is. It is never easy for any of the characters, especially Edna who gets a couple of heart-wrenching scenes, realising the reality of her condition.

Edna (Robyn Nevin) sitting in a bathtub in a dimly lit bathroom. Screenshot from Relic (2020)

Jones uses horror in Relic to exemplify the nature of dementia and deterioration. Edna believes there is something in the house and of course the characters, and the audience, question whether to believe her or not. The camera tends to linger on certain aspects just a little too long to create a constant sense of dread. A dark hallway, a knife carving wax, a hostile expression. Sometimes the camera lingers long enough for the audience to spot something in the background that shouldn’t be there. Sound too is used to great effect, with bassy rumblings and thuds giving off the sense that someone or something is lurking around the house. Jones provides some good scares but they don’t really add anything to the story and feel shoe-horned in. The most terrifying scenes are several conversations where Edna can only be seen through a mirror Kay stand beside: a glimpse of what is to come of Kay further down the line. The third act steers away from the family drama and dives fully into horror set-pieces. Again, they’re extremely effective (claustrophobes beware) and sure to frighten audiences but it doesn’t add much to the already engaging narrative. Thankfully though the final scenes wrap the story up in a satisfying but extremely poignant way- bringing the themes of the film full circle.

Relic is an extremely confident debut from Jones and a great showcase from the cast. It is a rare horror feature where the more human elements are more terrifying than the other-worldly: the inescapable truth that soon enough we all slowly decay and lose ourselves, or are forced to watch it happen to our loved ones. As pessimistic as this all sounds, there are moments of levity and optimism to be had but it’s the existential dread that will stick with you long after the credits roll.

Dir: Natalie Erika Jones

Scr: Natalie Erika Jones, Christian White

Prd: Mike Larocca, Todd Makurath, Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, Angela Russo-Ostot

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote

Country: Australia

Year: 2020

Runtime: 89 minutes

Relic screened at the London Film Festival 2020. It will release in UK cinemas on October 30th 2020.

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