Horror is a way for creators and fans to explore their fears in a safe environment. It’s a simple statement that seems like a given. But when those fears are the genes inside you, it seems more like preparation for the inevitable than a cathartic exercise, especially when horror films tackle things like Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. That’s the ground that IFC Midnight’s Relic treads and in doing so offers gut punch after gut punch. Especially for viewers with the condition in their family, hanging over them every time they forget to take coffee out of the microwave or when their mom calls and immediately forgets why. While we fear forgetting, it’s the anticipation and seeing what it does to those we love that scare us more.
From writer-director, Natalie Erika James, Relic offers up an auspicious feature debut that beautifully crafts fear, memory, and the inheritance of it all. When elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) inexplicably vanishes, her daughter Kay ( Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) rush to their family’s decaying country home. There, they find clues of Edna’s increasing dementia scattered around the house in her absence. After Edna returns just as mysteriously as she disappeared, Kay’s concern that her mother seems unwilling or unable to say where she’s been clashes with Sam’s unabashed enthusiasm to have her grandma back. As Edna’s behavior turns increasingly volatile, both begin to sense that an insidious presence in the house might be taking control of her. All three generations of women are brought together through trauma and a powerful sense of strength and loyalty to face the ultimate fear together.
Relic is a film that gets inside your skin, and for those who have had to witness loved-ones decline during Alzheimer’s Disease, it’s all too familiar. While the horror in the film is propelled by the fear that Edna is not Edna, it’s how James maps dementia into every scare that truly brings the film’s terror. As Edna loses herself, she resembles every time I had to watch my grandpa go through sundowning, a symptom of Alzheimer’s and dementia also known as “late-day confusion ” where individuals become increasingly confused and volatile as the day goes on. In the film, we see the strain that Edna’s sundowning puts on her daughter and granddaughter, and in response, we see how they fight to cope. Kay is set on putting her mother in a nursing home, a place where someone else can watch her mother and also absolve her of her daughterly responsibility. On the other hand, Sam is pushing her mom to care for her grandmother herself.
Three generations in one house, facing one problem. As the terror becomes increasingly real, the insidious force behind Edna’s confusion becomes more real and offers up startling body horror in the process. James is skilled at showcasing pain and terror through emotive experiences, using Mortimer’s range as Kay to showcase much of the fear you’re supposed to feel while watching. Additionally, Kay’s journey to accepting that she will have to care for her mother’s condition is breathtaking straight through the third act where she resigns herself, holding her mother, caring for her, despite her fear.
Without going too much into spoiler territory, Relic hits close to home because of James’ use of three generations of women. When my grandfather was in hospice, I remember the fear my mother had, the way it passed to me, and how we both had to accept that ticking time bomb in our DNA while we watched the effects it had on the patriarch of our family. But it was in this acceptance of the future and what we carried inside of us that allowed us to offer him the best care while other family members refused to enter his room. We could still see my grandfather, even though his body had warped and he didn’t know us. He was still welo, even if the other family members didn’t recognize him. Throughout the film, I saw my own experiences. Relic both opened old wounds and sealed them back shut.
With fantastic effects work and dark lighting that never caused your eyes to strain, Relic is superb and earns its spot next to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook when it comes to processing human emotion and fear through horror. But while James’s script and direction are a large part of this film’s success it’s the trio of women on screen who seal the deal on this work of traumatic art.
Their connection to each other is authentic, their maternal chemistries unmatched by any other film I’ve seen this year, and on an individual level, each and every actress drive home fear, sadness, and acceptance. There is not a single moment in Relic where I questioned their connections and because of that, their emotions reached through the screen and hit me in the gut. Edna’s stubbornness and dementia, Kay’s fear and reluctant acceptance, and above all else, Sam’s hope. Each generation showcases the way Alzheimer’s Disease impacts a family, and how they carry on after, with the knowledge that they carry the disease too.
Overall, rating Relic is hard. It’s a film that has minor pacing issues but stands as a potential masterpiece for those who connect to it. It’s a disturbing film in its body horror elements and its themes, but it also offers hope and communion between generations. Relic is one of the top films of 2020, horror or otherwise, and will earn its spot on any must-watch horror list going forward. There is as much to love about Relic as there is to fear and that’s what makes this film superb.
Relic is available on VoD July 10th and select drive-in theaters.
Overall, rating Relic is hard. It’s a film that has minor pacing issues but stands as a potential masterpiece for those who connect to it. It’s a disturbing film in its body horror elements and its themes, but it also offers hope and communion between generations. Relic is one of the top films of 2020, horror or otherwise, and will earn its spot on any must-watch horror list going forward. There is much to love about Relic as there is to fear and that’s what makes this film superb.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.