A Quiet Place 2, Godzilla vs Kong, The Conjuring 3, Halloween Kills – one by one the COVID-19 virus has pushed them from this year’s release schedule. That’s the bad new for horror fans. If there’s good news – and yes, there is some good news – smaller horror movies have found room to reach audiences. Look no further than indie horror The Wretched, which has enjoyed box office fortunes at drive-in theatres. Now another IFC Midnight release, Relic, has crept up onto VOD platforms. First-time director Natalie Erika James premiered her haunted house thriller earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival to critical praise. And it’s praise well-earned.
Late one evening, the elderly Edna – who lives alone in an aging house – disappears into the woods. She leaves no note, no trace. Worried about her mother, Kay, along with her daughter, Sam, return to the family home. Though they don’t find any clues as to her whereabouts, Kay and Sam find plenty of evidence of Edna’s worsening dementia. But then Edna unexpectedly shows up back home, seemingly fine and unaware that she’s been missing. When Kay presses her, Edna won’t tell her where she’s been or why she she left. Over the next few days, Edna’s behaviour becomes increasingly strange. Initially, Kay thinks it’s the dementia continuing to strip away at her mother. As day gives way to night, however, strange occurrences hint at a more sinister threat.
Relic an Unsettling Psychological Horror
Relic’s story may unfold in a crumbling house, but it’s more than a ‘haunted house’ movie. For the sake of avoiding the overused ‘mumblegore‘ label, we’ll just say that director Natalie Erika James crafts a patient, slow burn of psychological horror. And it’s a slow burn that works well. In particular, James understands the importance of introducing lurking threats early. Though Relic’s horror is restrained, its tension feels constant. Even quiet character moments don’t offer respite from the mounting threat. Simply put, Relic is paced to build unease, rarely relying on jump scares. And the final 15 to 20 minutes shift gears into a white-knuckling finale that exploits the setting’s claustrophobic halls. James ratchets things up and, in the process, delivers one of the better horror climaxes in recent memory. If there’s any complaints, Relic’s use of dream imagery borders on repetitive. But this is a minor complaint.
…though Relic’s horror is restrained, the movie’s tension feels constant.
Another standout aspect of Relic is the movie’s use of its dilapidated setting and camera work. Cinematographer Charlie Sarroff turns the house into its own character. Sarroff’s long shots of shadowy hallways, dusty, forgotten objects, and peeling plaster work on two levels. First, Sarroff puts the audience in the characters’ positions, feeling the house’s claustrophobic grip and general unease it creates. Second, Sarroff’s filming of the creeping black mould and static shots of the house’s emptiness mirrors Edna’s worsening dementia. The house becomes a visual metaphor for the character’s condition alongside the literal haunting. Doors swing slightly open, shadows manifest in screen corners – Sarroff’s camera work compliments James’ steady direction to create a truly unnerving experience for audiences.
Excellent Storytelling and Performances Compliment Scares
James, who co-wrote the story with Christian White, tells a wonderfully subtle story. Relic doesn’t waste time or insult its audience’s intelligence with expository dialogue or backstory. Instead, James and White trust you to infer long-standing inter-generational conflict and trauma through their character’s tense interactions. There’s a level of confidence in Relic’s storytelling that allows the viewer to fully engage with the movie’s atmosphere. Arguably, Relic’s subtext – its examination of human frailty and the fears of what we lose as we age – adds another dimension to the movie’s scares. Where Jordan Peele’s Us and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook were maybe more open to different interpretations, Relic is more direct with its subtext. This isn’t a criticism; Relic’s story is universal int he horror that it exploits. And its ending is ambiguous enough to leave viewers thinking past the final credits.
…Emily Mortimer, as the beleaguered Kay, delivers a layered performance. She perfectly captures the tension, weary concern, and building dread of her character.
All three lead actresses also turn in strong performances. Over the last few year, women have given some of the most memorable performances in horror. Florence Pugh in Midsommar, Toni Collette in Hereditary, or Lupita Nyong’o in Us – all of these actresses deserved awards consideration. Similarly, Emily Mortimer, as the beleaguered Kay, delivers a layered performance. She perfectly captures the tension, weary concern, and building dread of her character. As granddaughter Sam, Bella Heathcote (The Neon Demon) continues to impress – she has more to do here in Relic. And it’s Heathcote’s performance that really sells the growing tension of the movie’s climax. Last, but certainly not least, Robyn Nevin (Edna) completely convinces as a woman only sometimes aware of her slipping awareness. In those lucid moments, however, Nevin draws your empathy and, as a result, makes the deeper horror of the story more palpable.
Relic Positions Itself As One of the Year’s Best Horror Releases
If there’s any silver lining to the multiple delays of major horror movies this year, it’s been the freeing up of space for smaller projects. James hasn’t just made an impressive debut as a feature movie director; she’s arguably made one of the best horror movies of the year. While James crafts a creeping feeling of uneasiness, Relic’s story never loses sight of intricate details, fleshed out characters, and a universally relevant subtext. All three lead performances are every bit as good as the story and film-making. As a result, Relic stands out as genuinely scary horror movie about the frailty of our own existence – a subject that should be unsettling for any viewer. Expect big things from Natalie Erika James in the future.