'Relic' portrays familial terror with honesty, grace

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of IFC Films

The suffering of a loved one becomes sinister in this terrifying genre offering. 

“Relic” is a chilling horror film from director Natalie Erika James. The twisted tale follows a mother and daughter caring for their ill grandmother in a remote family home. James’ controlled and impressive direction carries this suspenseful experience to a nail-biting finish. 

Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote star as the mother-daughter duo. Their chemistry is layered, suggesting a complex relationship within the family prior to the events of the film. The strange behavior of their grandmother emphasizes the variety of reactions between the mother and daughter to a loved one succumbing to an illness. Her case of dementia slowly reveals itself as something a lot more sinister.  As their grandma’s condition worsens, their bond becomes stronger as they rely on each other for support. 

Robyn Nevin’s performance as the unsettling grandmother Edna carries the mood of the film. From scene to scene, she transitions from gentle and comforting to threatening and ominous. Her bewildered expressions and slow movements express a profound sadness throughout her performance. Edna herself is not necessarily a scary character, but the dementia working its way through her body is the true monster of this story. 

“Relic” is very much a film defined by its harrowing tone and isolating set design. Most of the film takes place within Edna’s small countryside home and the surrounding forest. The interiors are dimly lit, casting unflattering shadows and colors. The house feels like a shell of a much happier time now cast in loneliness. 

As Edna’s condition worsens, the tone of the film darkens. The house slowly begins to reflect the condition of the grandmother, imprisoning those within it. For a while, “Relic” slowly travels through its narrative, showcasing the sadness and vulnerability of Edna and her struggles. When things truly worsen, the film kicks itself into full horror gear. Director James keeps the terror restricted until a key point in the narrative. What follows is a cathartic release of the harrowing suspense building throughout the film. 

When the film submerges itself fully into its respective genre, the set transforms to reflect the tonal shift. What was once a timid countryside house becomes a terrifying labyrinth. Using striking practical effects and design, the house is manipulated for haunting sequences as well as metaphorical terror. 

Horror films are often at their strongest when they tackle real-life terrors in the comfort of a fictional facade. “Relic” takes the heartbreaking truths of elderly dementia and visually portrays it as a hungry force that takes those we love. The film excels in this metaphor with an absolutely haunting final few scenes that make use of grisly practical effects. 

Natalie Erika James has certainly succeeded in delivering a chilling and poignant feature debut that tackles an honest fear for many families. 

4 shrinking hallways out of 5