Note: This is a spoiler-free review.
2020 has been a rough year for movie-goers. Like nearly all other aspects of society, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to movie theatres being shut down across the world, stalling nearly every new movie in 2020’s release. Those who look forward to circling release dates on the yearly movie calendar must rely on movies produced by subscription-based streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, or the occasional indie flick that is released through video on demand. One such indie that was quietly made available this July is a creepy little Australian film called Relic, and it might just be the finest film to come out since the start of the shutdown.
Best described as a horror movie but with an equal blend of suspense and drama, Relic finds first-time director Natalie Erika James observing the darkest corners of family tension while delivering one of the most original takes on the haunted house subgenre in years. The film first premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January before being picked up for distribution by IFC Midnight. It begins with Kay and her daughter Sam traveling to her mother (Sam’s grandmother) Edna’s secluded home in the woods after they were informed that she hadn’t been seen for some time. For several days Kay and Sam assist a search party in looking for her while they stay at the house, which is littered with black mold and sticky notes left by Edna with simple reminders such as “take pills” and “flush toilet”, suggesting that her memory is deteriorating. Sam begins to encounter a number of strange occurrences in the house, including strange knocks and other sounds coming from within the moldy walls.
After Kay begins having nightmares of an old cabin covered in a mold similar to that in the house, Edna mysteriously appears in the kitchen one morning and makes nothing of her own disappearance. A doctor visits the house and though Edna has no recollection of where she’s been, he finds a large bruise on her chest and suggests Kay and Sam stay with her for a little while longer to ensure she can take care of herself. As Edna interacts with her daughter and granddaughter in different and sometimes disturbing ways, it becomes clear that she is suffering from dementia. Kay laments over the thought of putting her in a nursing home, while Sam offers to move in with Edna to help take care of her. Though she shows brief moments of compassion (mostly towards Sam), Edna’s mood soon becomes hostile and unpredictable and she exhibits strange behavior such as eating photographs thinking it will preserve memories. This leads Kay and Sam to wonder if there is potentially something worse afflicting Edna than just her memory.
The film takes a potent look at dementia and utilizes a classic allegory that reveals how truly sinister it can be, and the effects it can have on everyone involved. There is heavy symbolism throughout, primarily involving characters being portrayed through windows and in the reflections of mirrors in many shots. The windows of Edna’s home are symbolic of her memories, and as they become clouded with mold so too does her mind. The peculiar stained-glass window on the front door of the house is especially noteworthy, with Edna mentioning that she hates the window at one point. James expertly uses this symbolism to subtly foreshadow the larger events of the film even in its simplest moments.
Most of Relic’s 90-minute runtime is a slow burn of tension and suspense that finds the director hiding keys to the film’s revelation in plain sight. Because of this, Relic is one of those films where you don’t really realize how good it is until the very end. The symbolism and foreshadowing are what make the film truly stand out, which may lead viewers into something they weren’t expecting at first; but if they pay attention to the film’s strong hidden messages, the payoff is an extremely satisfying reward. Relic is much more than mere metaphor, however, featuring a unique approach to the dark family drama before revealing one of the most inventive horror movie twists in some time. Director Natalie Erika James displays veteran craftsmanship in her first full-length picture and has a bright future ahead of her, certainly being a name to become familiar with. Relic is arguably the best film to be released during quarantine and is yet another example of the filmmaking talent coming from Australia. Relic is available to rent through video on demand from Amazon Prime Video, Youtube, and Google Play.