A recent study from the University of Chicago suggested that fans of horror movies are better equipped to deal with the COVID pandemic, partly because they’ve grown used to being overwhelmed by fear. So, technically, the following Relic review is public health advice. If you end up having complaints that the movie was too scary, then good; you’re welcome for keeping you healthy.
In a roundabout way, Relic is the perfect movie to prepare you for the pandemic, seeing as it’s about a terrible, invisible disease that hits older folks the hardest: dementia. The opening scene plays like a nightmare for anyone taking care of aging parents—an old woman stands naked in her house at night, oblivious to the bathtub overflowing upstairs, alone and clearly confused. Sometime later, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) arrive at the house to check in on their jeopardized matriarch, only to discover that there’s more going on than your typical non-horror situation.
What follows is nothing you haven’t seen already, especially if you’re a horror aficionado. For the Australian indie horror scene, which gave us unique spins on the genre like Killing Ground and The Babadook, Relic is surprisingly formulaic: exposition in the daytime, creepy shadows in the nighttime, rinse and repeat until there’s enough tension to let loose in the third act. Problem is, the movie’s first two acts are nearly bereft of tension. Relic treats its lead-up like nothing more than that—lead-up. The trio of protagonists languish around a grungily lit house, occasionally tripping into hints that the movie will take off soon (just not yet). Scenes don’t fire off like crackerjacks; they peter out and wheeze past the finish line. It feels like dead space to fill the runtime.
Even scenes that are supposed to tighten our chests come across as ambivalent at best. In one early altercation, grandma Edna (Robyn Nevin) bestows her wedding ring upon Sam, only to violently demand it back later. When she jerks the ring off Sam’s finger, there’s no visual indication of pain, no uncomfortable sound design—just an unconvincing push and pull between two actors who, like the film they’re in, seem to be saving their best stuff for the finale. Relic’s energy is always potential, never kinetic.
Thankfully, it lives up to that potential when the time finally comes. The third act anchors its scares to the film’s underlying themes, transforming its residential setting into a maze of confusion and disorientation. Director Natalie Erika James uses claustrophobia and subverts the laws of physics to create the visual impression of a dementia-addled mind, never stopping to explain the conceit or belabor the metaphor in the slightest. For those watching the movie for scares, it’s effective; for those tuned into its thematic wavelength, it’s a mortifying reminder of our brain’s unreliability. Perhaps the third act hits harder because the first two were stultifying, but some pleasures are indeed sweeter after they’ve been withheld.
And Relic doesn’t stop getting better until the credits roll. The final scene is an absolute knockout—a haunting, subtle portrait of the toxic relationship between love and loss. If Relic’s final shots were hung up in a gallery and named after another horror film that dealt with Hereditary disease, they’d be the talk of the fine art world (I assume). Do they make up for the dry spell that came before? Yes. And that’s a rare thing.