Relic is a beautifully thought-provoking, empathetic horror film, and a promising directorial debut from Natalie Erika James, who also co-wrote the screenplay. It is a specimen of that rare horror movie which is also heartbreaking and emotionally disturbing in more subtle ways than straightforward horror, venturing outside the regions of pure terror. At the same time that it is viscerally and conceptually scary, it is also incredibly sad and ultimately an emotional narrative. Thus, despite the fear and dread it provokes, it has a quiet core, which is humanly sad and fraught with existential horror. Relic has a steadily building sense of chilling foreboding, an achingly haunting quality, and a subdued sense of devastation. Eerie, desolate, and atmospheric, deprived of ghosts but invested with emotional weight, it possesses a somber, grave, rending passionateness. What it has to reveal, and what it treats of, is more dreadful than any monster or gruesome murder could be. It also shows imaginativeness in terms of what a horror movie could be a vehicle for, demonstrating a fresh sense of possibilities for a genre which often lacks emotional complexity or depth.
The story follows a mother, Kay (played by Emily Mortimer), daughter, Sam (played by Bella Heathcote, who was previously in a memorable role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon), and a grandmother, Edna (played by Robyn Nevin), who is lost, found, and lost again (in terms of her personality). When Edna disappears for several days and is reported missing, Kay and Sam come to her secluded rural home to find out what happened and try to trace her, when Edna suddenly reappears on her own without any explanation of where she had been. The rest of the film depicts their struggle to understand, cope, and help with Edna’s condition, which becomes hauntingly unstable and disturbed, as the house undergoes a strange transformation paralleling the one within Edna.
The cinematography is carefully crafted and striking, but restrained. Not having the allurements of a lavish set design such as a movie taking place in a stately old mansion, for example, would offer, even amidst the rather ordinary surroundings of the house, it manages to stand out and distinguish itself visually. Down to the extremely homey and simple wardrobe of all the characters, nothing about this film is ostentatious, except that it is terribly good. The exception to this apparent lack of distinction is the lush, dense, torridly beautiful forests and natural landscape the house is lost in, as it is set in the countryside near Melbourne, Australia.
Another strength of this movie is that Robyn Nevin’s portrayal of Edna is wonderfully natural and nuanced. Her magnetic stage presence and sense of dignity, her chilling eyes and lovely silver hair, are enhanced by the touchingly disturbing transformations that took place in her as her character’s unraveling rapidly progressed. Her forlorn mourning of her lost past, her bewildered desolateness, is so genuine that it is upsetting to watch. Edna’s increasing volatility, violent outbursts, and erratic behavior are also effortlessly conveyed.
Director James understands that a large part of horror is empathy, the emotional identification we make with the characters or the ordeals they represent, and terrified compassion. Pity is a strong element of any frightening creature or individual character in a horror story. Ghosts, monsters, crones, beings supernatural or not, have the power to scare us that they do because they’ve been wronged, because they’ve suffered and are suffering so much, because they’re the embodiment of afflicted humanity and spiritual devastation. They are victimized or martyrized to an extent by their own trauma, which makes them sinister in the same degree as they deserve our pity.
Abstaining entirely from jump scares, the choices in editing, as well as the way the story unfolds in general, are surprising and unexpected, avoiding conventional stylings or false notes of terror. The way it composes and builds up the scenes is refreshingly new. Relic is frightening without being overly gory or resorting to cheap thrills such as jarring musical cues. Neither is it so vague and ambiguous that it can never be determined what really happened in it; there is a clear message and direction, though the precise meaning is open to interpretation. Relic is abundant in symbols, without being either too heavy-handed or too vaporous.
What emerges from the film is a metaphor for aging and its debilitating effects, specifically dementia. It deals with the guilt that the younger generation bears for the disintegration of their elderly parents, and the sense of not having cared well enough for them. Kay has disturbing nightmares about the black cabin in the woods that her great-grandfather built, because that is where he died, and as she tells Sam (clearly an understatement), he “was not taken care of as he should” towards the end. She sees the horrible, decayed, dried-up and crumbling corpse on the floor of the cabin because he had most likely deteriorated drastically in his last days; I also thought it implied that his body wasn’t found for a long time, since he’d been more or less abandoned by his family. She is stricken with guilt witnessing the decline of her mother’s mental faculties and the conditions that she has been living in, and experiences those dreams because she fears the same dark, sad fate will befall, and is already befalling, her mother.
The opening Christmas scene, so memorable in its composition and colors, is far from being a menacing portent of sinister happenings or supernatural presences in the house. By the end of the film we understand that it only marks the beginning of Edna’s downward spiral. Kay refers in passing to the fact that “last Christmas she flooded the bathroom.” Though the movie doesn’t show this preceding period, it is clear her mother has been evincing signs of increasing mental instability for some time. Kay hesitates and feels the need to take an apologetic, explanatory tone while she tells the police officer when she last talked to Edna. In her delicate defensiveness we see the form of her guilt towards her mother, and her distressed desire to in some degree excuse herself.
One of the most horrific elements of the film is the way in which the strange “other” side of Edna’s home defies the laws of physics, reality, and any other standard of experience. The impossible dimensions of the space in the house beyond the closet represent the labyrinths of the mind, the mazes where Edna gets increasingly lost. The walls of that terrifying place are scattered with the notes she leaves herself to try to remember and hold on to her old life. “My mother’s eyes are green.” She was never lost outside the house because she had never left it, she had always been lost in the interior only, within herself, isolated by her fall into the abysses of dementia. The space turns, alters, expands out and contracts in, in accordance with the unknowable changes and twistings of Edna’s own mind, which she herself does not understand. It is warped with the losses, lacunae, violence, and sudden shifts of a human psyche. Not only disorienting, it menaces in terms of its transgression of known reality, and the very real possibility that you can never escape. A child is afraid of getting lost in the labyrinth of the physical world. An adult in the wane of life, experiencing the slow extinguishing of the mind, is terrorized by their possibly eternal lostness in inner spaces. This displacement from normality is not only confusing but agonizing. Maybe it is never day in that half of Edna’s house, but only night. Maybe it never yielded a single comforting room, in its merciless profusion of the elements of a home, without any of the familiar qualities. She had found her way back out once, but seemed doomed to be drawn mesmerically into it until she became finally and irretrievably lost, wandering the illogical hallways, rooms, doubled doors, wrong angles, false leads of her mind for eternity like some internal hell. The mental landscapes of this impossible space are more terrifying than any place having physical reality only.
We see that Kay was afraid before to take care of her mother and be exposed to her deteriorating state, which led to the immense guilt that she felt. Her conflict is so painfully relevant to all of us – the aversion to witnessing her mother and dealing with her collapse, the torment of remorse, the sense of helplessness that floods her, both Edna’s helplessness and her own helplessness to make her mother better or reverse the irrecoverable damage. In the scene in the woods where Edna is burying the photo album she’s kept with her all this time, Kay is overwhelmed by pity and love for her mother, and finally decides to take Edna to her own home and look after her properly. Prior to this scene, she had visited a nursing home that she was considering sending Edna to, and immediately afterwards, in the car, she broke down into sobs, expressing utter heartbreak and grief. She saw what her mother’s life (and death) would be like there. She felt the immense pitiableness and sadness, and the terrible inexorability of Edna’s situation.
But by the end of the film, Kay completely loses her fear of the impossible responsibility, that of caring for one’s parent while watching them go through that collapse like a nightmare they are trapped in and will never truly awaken from, and slowly lose themselves, bit by bit, faster and faster, gradually becoming unrecognizable and having only a shadow existence. When Edna had changed into her final form, that strange desiccated black-green pitiable thing, Sam shouts, “That’s not Gran!” This voices our reflexive inability to recognize the same person in their deteriorated state. But it is them, it is exactly them and nothing but the person that you loved. It’s what they’ve become, or what they’ve been reduced to. It’s their remnant. A relic of what they once were. Kay realizes this, resolving to confront her responsibility and remain with what’s left of her mother no matter what.
The lovely candles that Edna is making throughout the film mirror the end where her flesh is pulled away by Kay’s gentle hand to reveal the thing inside that she’s been whittled down to. She had been peeling segments of the candles down, cutting the sections with a knife, to form a kind of disturbing flower, alien but beautiful. She no longer tries to make them beautiful according to the normal standard. The candle-making is a symbol of her metamorphosis. I think it also is an indication that she had been putting up a front of normalcy and verisimilitude to her old self for a long time, using defenses, trying to maintain herself, until it all fell away, as it inevitably had to. This disguise, façade, or outer skin had been breaking apart and was gone in patches by the middle of the movie; when she is scratching at herself in the bathtub, we see that pieces of this illusory garment are already missing, revealing the stranger substance underneath.
So, then, the word “relic” refers to both the stained-glass window in the door which was brought from the old house built by Edna’s grandfather, and to Edna herself. The remnant she has become, what’s left of her mind, memories, and identity, and the strange, pared-down final being, suffering purely and absolutely.
Edna had believed that the stained glass brought a sort of curse with them into the new house. I’m not certain who Edna thought was intruding into her home through the closet. Possibly it was part of her general paranoia and fear, or her way of externalizing the source of her helplessness. We never see anyone but her in that otherworldly portion of the house, which is distorted by her decaying and struggling mind. After her husband died, she developed a fear of the house, she felt that it had become bigger, and she had become more alone, and thus she may have exteriorized that feeling into monsters or creatures who came through the mysterious passageway beyond the closet and terrorized her.
The ending, where the three generations of women are lying one next to the other in the bed, contains a premonition of the continuation of their bleak fate: Sam gently strokes a bit of that same black mold, on Kay’s back, which had infected her grandmother, and always was a part of the glass relic in the door, suggesting that Kay will ultimately fall to the same nightmare and Sam in her turn will have to assume the insupportable burden of caring for her mother as Kay is now heartbrokenly caring for Edna. It is an intensely sad and chilling reminder that just as Kay will now go down that path herself, increasingly faster, all of us are on the same path to being utterly lost in unfathomable spaces and never finding ourselves again.