“Don’t forget it,” a scrawled note vainly implores its own writer in Relic, a gutting Australian horror movie about dementia and its effects on a family. A nightmare for anyone who has watched someone they love age and their memories slip away, and a cinematic experience made all the more terrifying for its basis in reality, co-writer and director Natalie Erika James’s feature debut here is a powerful film that is as moving as it is scary, an unmissable feat for the genre.
The script by James and Christian White smartly centers on three generations of women, allowing each member of the audience to think of their own past, present, and future. Middle-aged Kay (Emily Mortimer) receives a call from a concerned neighbor about her mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin). The aging woman hasn’t been seen, and when Kay and her millennial daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), arrive at her home, they find handwritten notes to do basic tasks, a bowl of rotting fruit, and no sign of their mother and grandmother. Edna soon reappears, seemingly out of nowhere in the decaying house with no explanation for her absence. However, Kay and Sam’s relief at her return is short-lived when they discover the advanced state of Edna’s memory loss as a malevolent presence surfaces in the recesses of the family home.
Dread and fear seep through the film, with its deft use of shadow and sound: creaking trees, a moaning old house, and dark corners that make you question, “Did I just see something there?” It was all enough to make me silently and unconsciously mimic a Munch painting during multiple scenes. For all the hints at horror, James makes effective but spare use of explicit violence and gore. Relic isn’t a genre movie with buckets of blood and multiple jump scares, but James knows exactly when to make the audience shiver and shudder. What’s more impressive than its horror bona fides is that the director has also imbued Relic with a tenderness that is rare for the genre. Whatever else lurks in Edna’s home, it’s clear that love is also present, driven by the powerful bonds between mothers and their daughters, regardless of age.
Mortimer seamlessly trades in her native British accent for an Australian one here (at least to this American’s ears), but it remains her overall performance that impresses. Her Kay is alternately worried, horrified, affectionate, and stern, yet we buy every minute of her devotion to both her mother and her daughter. Heathcote gets to be more than just the blond beauty audiences expect in a horror movie in a role that requires sweetness, confusion, and distress. And though Nevin is likely the least known of the three leads, she is deserving of the most praise, moving from one mental state to another with an ease that will feel painfully familiar to many members of the audience.
Relic would make for a devastating double feature with James’ fellow Australian Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film, The Babadook. Each horror movie deals in more than just scares, with The Babadook’s protagonist grieving the death of a loved one while Relic’s characters are mourning the loss of what made Edna who she was. They both succeed on multiple levels, never skimping on the dread while their deeper meaning lingers.
Relic haunts long after the end of its credits, but not in the way that we usually expect from its genre. Its traditional scares are unsettling with visuals that remain seared on the brain, but they’re nothing compared to the film’s lingering power. This is the first horror movie that not only made me gasp but also made me sob, struggling to catch a breath at the beauty and tragedy of what James creates on screen.
“Relic” is out Friday at drive-ins and on demand.