This article contains spoilers for Relic, out on VOD July 10.
The great power of Relic, Natalie Erika James’ terrifying directorial debut, is how deftly it straddles the blurry line between reality and the supernatural. It doesn’t matter if the terrifying twists we’re witnessing on screen are the byproduct of a truly haunted house, or the protagonist’s worsening dementia. Fear is about perception. That creak you hear in the silence of night is scary because your mind makes it so — who cares if you actually believe in the ghosts you’re suddenly vividly picturing lurking around the corner. (On that note, thank you, Hereditary, for the visual of Toni Colette crawling on the ceiling that continues to haunt my middle-of-the-night awakenings.)
The mind, and more specifically its inevitable decay, is James’ main focus in this family horror drama. The Australian director masterfully creates an unsettling atmosphere — all that eerie candle art! — that leaves us open to the suggestion of a haunting, while grounding her story very firmly in an inescapable truth: Growing old may be the most terrifying monster of all.
The film opens with Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) driving up to their Australian small-town family home to check on Edna (Robyn Nevin), Kay’s mother, who has been MIA for several days. The house is empty, and the search for Edna begins. Has she wandered into the woods behind the property? Gone into town? Was she kidnapped? Wracked with worry, and with the nagging guilt of not having checked up on Edna in weeks (“work’s been crazy”), Kay and Sam interview neighbors, who report increasingly erratic behavior from the matriarch, and go to the police — still nothing.
The next morning, Edna reappears without explanation, and appears to be perfectly lucid. When asked where she was, she’s evasive, claiming she was in the house the whole time.
As the action unfolds, we realize that, on some level at least, she’s right. There exists a shadow world within the house, a labyrinth of tunnels and passageways that shift and close in on themselves as you walk through. But is the house haunted? Or are those eerie layers a manifestation of Edna’s dementia, which causes the mind to retreat and reform in increasingly disorienting ways? The answer, according to James, is a little of both.
“My grandmother had Alzheimer's,” she told Refinery29 in a phone interview ahead of Relic’s July 10 VOD release. “I started writing it on a trip to go visit her in Japan. It was the first time she couldn't remember who it was. I had a lot of guilt about not going to see her more regularly. But she also lives in this really creepy traditional Japanese house that’s 150 years old. It has always really freaked me out, as a kid spending my summers there. The film is a combination of these childhood fears that resurface [when you visit a place], and the feelings surrounding my grandmother's state.”
Kay, worried such an incident may reoccur, goes to visit elderly care facilities in Melbourne, a decision that Sam finds outrageous. She tells her mother that she’d be more than happy to move in and take care of Edna. After all, she’s the only family they have. But when Kay returns, Sam is missing. Though Kay assumes her daughter has fled her responsibilities yet again, we know better. Sam, like her grandmother before her, is trapped inside the Upside Down version of the house; and though there are no demogorgons, something is hunting her. Meanwhile, Edna, who has been slowly losing control over herself, starts to decline rapidly. Her illness starts to manifest itself physically, as a black mold grows over her chest cavity, turning her into a monster of sorts. Kay, who has thus far been pretty oblivious to her mother’s plight, starts to worry in earnest, and realizes that this goes beyond what she can dismiss as old age. Eventually Edna turns on her daughter, and she too finds herself in the bowels of the house.
By the end of the film, it’s looking more and more like the dark forces taking over the house are real. Kay and Sam find each other in one of the passageways and force their way out with Edna hot on their heels. But when it comes time to leave Edna to her fate and escape, Kay can’t do it. She tells Sam to save herself, choosing to stay with her mother and care for her. Facing her fears, she delicately scoops Edna up and carries her upstairs, where she cradles her, slowly peeling the charred skin from her bones until she’s smooth and vulnerable. Eventually, Sam joins them, and the three generations of women curl up against one another, ready to face whatever comes next.
“It always ended with the family on the bed together,” James said. The intention of the ending is really about acceptance and grief. In Japan you wash your deceased loved one's body before the funeral. In [Emily’s] performance, that's how we approached it. So, it might seem like a heightened genre moment, but underlined with real emotion.”
Relic doesn’t rely on jump scares to freak out the audience. Instead, it uses horror as a way to examine the very real fear of watching our parents grow older and more frail, all while knowing that we ourselves will go through the same thing. “I'm trying to find inventive ways to earn the scare in a way that's psychologically scary rather than a loud noise that makes you jump no matter what the image is,” James said.
Time, and what it does to those we love, is the true villain of this story — if one can even call it that. “There's nothing evil in the film, really,” James added. “It's not so simple.”