My great grandmother had dementia…
…There are few feelings that are worse than watching someone you’ve known your entire life decline into a shell of their former selves. Worse than that is when that same person no longer knows who you are. It’s this sad feeling of helplessness and fear that director Natalie Erika James’ Relic, now available on blu-ray from Scream Factory and IFC Midnight, captures with pinpoint accuracy. The fact that the film is James’ debut feature is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Relic follows Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), who arrive at the home of Kay’s mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin) after no one hears from Edna for some time. Old and getting older, Kay fears the worst, in one moment expecting to find her mother dead in bed. What they find instead is an empty house, no sign of Edna anywhere. To their joy, Edna eventually returns, albeit covered in mud and in shambles, without any memory of where she’s been or what’s happened. Kay chalks it up to Edna’s progressive dementia, but as time goes on and Edna begins to behave more strangely, Kay begins to wonder…is this dementia, or has something else returned home with Edna?
Having released through VOD back in July, Relic instantly became one of the most talked about horror films of the year, and for good reason: this film is magnificent. And it all starts with the cast, each of whom is phenomenal in their own right. Both Mortimer and Heathcote capture that desperate feeling of knowing that an unseen force is taking someone they love, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Supernatural presence or not, Edna’s mind is decaying right before her family’s eyes, and the pain stored in their defeated pupils is evident. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing,” says Kay, and the trick is, there is no right answer.
That sense of dread, of not knowing what to do, permeates all throughout Relic. Brian Reitzell’s score hums and whispers underneath the scene, like soft voices in a trouble mind, while the camera creeps slowly around corners, a quiet observer of the horror which this family faces. That terror of watching someone you love be destroyed by a disease with no cure is one that you feel all the way down to your bones, and it’s one we see play out differently between the characters. Mortimer plays the accepting side of the coin, tired, weary, all hope lost, whereas her daughter, Sam, has the hope of youth, that pining dream that Edna can get better and will be better, as long as they wish it hard enough.
But a dream is all that hope is; the reality, a waking nightmare.
Nevin steals the show as Edna, because she is simultaneously the most frightening yet the most frightened of the three characters. From the moment we first meet her, nude and staring at the flashing glow of Christmas tree lights in the dark, there is something deeply unsettling about Edna’s presence. It’s the same sort of uncomfortable vibe I had when I would visit my grandmother in the home, aghast as a nurse wheeled her out, makeup overdone like a doll, her lips baring the brightest shade of lipstick the home could find in a failed attempt to make her seem more alive. It's an image that to this day makes me want to scream and cry. No amount of makeup could make my quiet, lost grandmother feel more like the vibrant soul she once was, and it’s what makes Nevin’s portrayal so heartbreaking, because it’s clear Edna was once a spunky, confident woman, a woman we still see in glimpses here and there when the disease (or whatever it is), isn’t making itself known. The saddest part of this all perhaps being that, as is the way, Kay and Edna’s roles become reversed, with Kay checking under Edna’s bed for monsters, like Edna used to do for her when she was a kid.
The joys of getting old, all!
If it isn’t clear yet, Relic is an exceptionally emotional experience guaranteed to flood your eyes with tears. I’ve seen it multiple times now, and I’ve cried every time. That’s the power of James’ film, and a testament to her ability to capture an experience that millions upon millions of us have been through and will go through.
Relic is all about the never-ending cycle of life and death. We’re born. We die. We go into the dirt. And new life is created. Rinse and repeat. James’ film is thick with an earthy atmosphere that captures this theme well. Edna’s entire home is one that has the sense of a once lively place, that has now begun to fall apart. The wallpaper is peeling. The air is musty. Rooms are full of clutter, like filed away memories. And then there’s that stained-glass art which was transferred from the shack that Kay’s great grandfather slowly declined in and made a part of Edna’s home, implying that whatever is happening here, it’s a part of this family…the way that dementia is a disease which is passed on through genetics.
That, perhaps, is the most frightening terror of all that we see in Relic.
I say “whatever is happening here” because Relic isn’t the sort of horror film that holds your hand through this sad story. Instead, it confuses and manipulates the audience, putting us in a similar headspace to Edna. Is that shadow of a small, child-like creature real, or an effect of the paranoia in Edna’s mind and family? Are the rooms of the house really changing and closing in, or is that part of the madness as well? James’ is careful to lay out clues without ever straying as far as to give a straightforward answer, and it’s that mystery that allows Relic to linger with viewers long after.
As for the blu-ray, well, let’s just say that Edna’s crumbling mind is more put together than this disc, because it’s about as barebones as they come. Relic comes with a trailer, and that’s it. Which is a real disappointment, because for such a wonderfully complex and heartbreaking film, I’d give anything to hear James and/or the cast take us through this emotional and terrifying journey. But that’s not the case, and what is otherwise a near perfect film gets a full star marked off the rating for it.
Still, Relic is one of the most devastating and haunting films of the year and is worth owning and revisiting often, so if special features are not a main draw for you, don’t hesitate to give this film a place in your collection.
Relic is now on blu-ray/DVD from Scream Factory and IFC Midnight.
By Matt Konopka