Relic (2020)

LFF 2020: Relic – Keeping it in the family…

Haunted houses and their tormented occupants are subjects that dominate the world of horror, these creepy locations making us wary of ever setting foot in dilapidated buildings with creaky floorboards. But in Relic (2020) the shadow that has fallen over the home in question is much more insidious than the usual ghosts and demons. It’s a debilitating disorder that is the true bogeyman here, writer-director Natalie Erika James using the tropes of this sub-genre to explore the effects of dementia on both the sufferer, and those closest to them. After all, what can be more terrifying than watching a loved one lose not only their memories, but also their sense of self?

Relic (2020)

Even from the opening moments, James makes a point of allowing us to see things from the point-of-view of a dementia sufferer, the setting capturing the claustrophobia and isolation of the condition. Shadows lurk, mould runs up the walls, and rooms seem to harbour a wealth of forgotten memories. It’s a perfect metaphor for Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) own troubled mind, which has become less than reliable. So when Edna goes missing, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) feels like she’s waiting for the inevitable, stuck in her old family home and trying to keep her relationship with her own daughter (Bella Heathcote) from crumbling. Yet with Edna’s sudden and unexpected return bringing up difficult questions about where she was hiding, Kay and her daughter start to wonder if there’s more to her illness than they originally thought.

James unravels the narrative at a delicate pace, her direction building up a horrid sense of creeping dread, lingering shots eking out the tension and making us question exactly what is loitering in the darkness. Charlie Sarroff’s superb cinematography adds to that unease, the grey tones and muted colours giving Relic a gorgeous, dreamlike quality that is hard to look away from, even when we want to. Yet it is the sound that truly ramps up the terror, Brian Reitzell’s eerie score perfectly complemented by Robert Mackenzie’s excellent sound design, which amplifies every creak and crack of the old house. It’s as if the building is its own living, breathing thing, ready to strike out at any second. This attention to detail, alongside the story’s measured pace, makes Relic’s scares all the more shocking when they do eventually come, the final act in particular an intense, nightmarish sequence, and also a grand pay-off to a fantastic film.

Emily Mortimer as Kay

While dementia is a topic that has been explored in horror to great effect before (The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), The Visit (2015)), James and co-writer Christian White are bolder with what they have to say in their own story. They are careful to emphasise the everyday nightmares of Edna’s condition just as much as the supernatural elements, focusing on the emotional cost that Kay and her daughter have to pay as they watch Edna’s memories slip away. The central turns from Nevin, Mortimer and Heathcote bring these moments to painful life, their poignant performances highlighting the traumatic effects that the illness has on the family bond. Mortimer is especially wonderful when things start to reach a point of no return, her weary, mournful portrayal showing how torn Kay is between facing the inevitable, or continuing to let her mother live alone. Hard though it is to watch at times, it’s this heartfelt realism in both the performances and the script which makes Relic truly captivating, giving it a lasting impact felt well beyond the final frames. Yet more than that, this realism is vital for the depiction of such a devastating subject, the true horror of which many families have to face on a daily basis.

Although atmospheric, slow-burn ghost stories may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Relic is still very much worth your time. Chilling, powerful and utterly gripping, it will get under your skin in a way few films can, and blindside you with tears as well as scares. Indeed, as someone who has a dementia sufferer in the family, this hit me harder than any other film I’ve seen recently. It might be a horror, but Relic is also a touching, honest portrayal of a dreadful condition that is impossible to escape, in more ways than one.

Bella Heathcote in Relic

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