As an avid horror enthusiast, there are few things I am perturbed by. However, what will indefinitely surge my anxiety is home invasion. Natalie Erika James’ debut shocker, RELIC, takes that intrinsic terror and drags it down the dirt road. James is an Australian filmmaker known for her insidious, thoughtful shorts. She has an absolute knack for imaginative horror—expanding the genre from what goes bump in the night to what reverberates in our own subconscious. RELIC is not only a triumph but a cornerstone of the aforementioned initiative.
RELIC follows Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) as they delve into the bizarre disappearance of their mother and grandmother, Edna, respectively. The film starts off slow; eerily slow. Kay and Sam fumble through search parties and police advice to no avail. It seems Edna has evaporated out of thin air. Even if it doesn’t feel like quick pacing, James, with a 90-minute run time, doesn’t waste a second of efficacy; if she’s gonna do exposition, she may as well get character development out of it as well. James does so by utilizing the particular interpersonal relationships of Kay and Sam as they relate to Edna. While Kay assumes her stubborn, most likely demented, mother has stumbled into trouble, Sam clutches her heart at the thought of her meek, sweet “Gran” alone in the cold forest. The rift is indicative of not just their thought process, but the combative nature of their relationship. Sam resents Kay’s treatment of Edna, while Kay tries to navigate the trauma, from Edna, that Sam has no idea about.
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While things can at first feel taxing and relentless, RELIC’s power comes in its juxtapositions. James rarely uses a still camera, and the times she does, she always makes sure something is moving, whether it be the actors, the set, or so forth. The movement gives the audience some solace that the narrative is physically progressing, while parallelling what is moving that we chose to ignore. The latter becomes a large tenet of the film’s conflict: it’s ingenious foreshadowing. Edna nonchalantly waltzes back into her home and it’s overtly clear that something is off. Through the second act, both women have their experiences with Edna as she develops strange bruises and a volatile rage, even getting violent with Sam.
As Kay and Sam’s fears set in about Edna, James’ point is made. Sam, while exploring a peculiar mildew stain on the linen closet wall, finds herself in a dilapidated hallway. A hallway she has never seen before that looks just like her Gran’s house, and yet completely different. This part of the house is marred all over by the same black mildew, and as Sam rushes to leave, she finds no exit. The linen closet has disappeared. She is trapped. Sam is justifiably terrified and starts screaming for help, which quickly turns to banging on the wall. As she pounds in the other dimension of her grandmother’s house, the “real” house reacts with a simple creaking above the fireplace—not unlike the sound we societally understand as the “house settling.” One simple shot is the basis of James’ twisted thought process and an emblematic road sign as to where the horror is headed.
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RELIC anthropomorphizes the worry you have when the house settles in the middle of the night, be it the creaking floor or adjusting fridge, and just when you think it’s some intangible entity coming to hurt you… It really isn’t. James says maybe it isn’t an intangible being. Maybe it’s someone trapped, someone who is clawing tooth and nail to escape, someone who you’re not helping. She hits not only the terror of the mundane but the fear of being a “bad person” in one fell swoop. James isolates one small, devastatingly human thought and amps it up to instill deep-seated fear. After the movie was long over, I couldn’t stop thinking about that shot’s subtle terror. James cleverly attaches a physical, tangible element to her dread: the black mildew. While at first a disgusting element that makes the house, and thus the situation, unclean, it starts to transpire differently when it’s revealed Edna’s bruises are just an accumulation of the black mildew on her person. RELIC joins the ranks of films like Hideo Nakata’s DARK WATER in reminding us that elements are powerful, influential, and, most of all, fucking scary. Water as it stands is one of the most precious materials on this earth, and while it’s life-giving, James argues with her black mildew that it can also be the bringer of death.
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RELIC’s final scene relays an interesting quality that makes it inarguably unique. The film’s arguments between the three women show the nature of having an aversion to your mother. I specifically say aversion, and not that they don’t “like each other,” because it’s different. It’s not that Kay doesn’t like her mother, she just doesn’t know how to be around her, which reverberates into Sam’s feelings about her own mother. Intergenerational trauma is one that permeates deep but often leaves for a lot of quiet rooms and non-vocalized thoughts. Through the film’s progression, Sam refuses to call her mother anything but her first name until she is screaming “Mom! Mom!” when she needs saving. When Kay has the choice to leave Edna for dead after her viral attack, she realizes her mom needs saving too. Edna needs the physical layers of trauma, portrayed as skin, peeled back so they can be completely open with one another—as a family. The three women reconcile in complete vulnerability as they lay in bed spooning one another in one of the most hauntingly beautiful scenes in modern horror. Three generations of women learning how to co-exist.
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RELIC is a horror movie that is evasive in its stride. For the first half, the audience has no idea what to think or, even further, why to care about another family with problems. Natalie Erika James, in her brilliance, only allows things to progress slowly before revealing the true nature of fear in the neglected, whether it be the neglect of the noises behind the wall, the neglect of a mother you don’t know, or the neglect of an element’s true power. RELIC follows in the footsteps of films like Karyn Kusama’s THE INVITATION; Kusama talks about fear from the power of grief and influence while also showing familiar bloodbath terrors. James shows the terror of being trapped, but also of the overlooked. Both women think on multiple planes, their minds unraveling the very crux of things we don’t fear, but should. Before we commend or endorse another movie from the “twisted” (read: arrogant) mind of Eli Roth, let’s allow for the worlds of horror from the multifaceted, unsettling, and devilishly thoughtful minds of women like Natalie Erika James.