I’m not sure how to write this review. Not because I’m confused about my feelings for Natalie Erika James’ debut feature Relic, but because my connection to it is almost supernatural; the sort of visceral thing that makes up the plot of a film like this. You see, for years, I experienced a dream about my grandmother’s house—yawning and stretching and decaying around me; my brain’s way of interpreting the real decay of spirit sat in front of me. Her death came slowly and sadly. And I was lost in the maze of what that meant for my family and myself.
Relic is a movie that understands the specific pain I felt watching my sprightly grandmother shift into something unrecognizable. But it also mimics my nightmares in such a specific, grueling way, that I must admit right now it compelled me in ways that others might not feel. Movies do that sometimes—they malign our intentions, they creep into our skin, they worm their way into our subconscious. It’s a movie I won’t soon forget.
The film focuses on three generations of women. It opens with the eldest—Edna (Robyn Nevin)—standing before a blinking Christmas tree, her house flooded with bath water. In the next scene, we learn that she’s gone missing, and her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) have come to look for her. Edna suffers from dementia, so her disappearance—though worrisome—isn’t altogether surprising. But as Kay and Sam settle into the family home, waiting for a sign of hope, they soon realize something odd: the house appears to be rotting from within the walls. Mold decorates the wallpaper. Blood soaks through the carpet. Like flesh, it festers.
Soon, Edna returns, dirtied but unharmed. She doesn’t know where she’s been, and her behavior is more erratic than ever. She gifts Sam her wedding ring only to violently snatch it back as if it was stolen. She alternates between her polished old self and a haggard double. Is it the dementia, or is there something more sinister afoot—something tied to the legacy of the home, the mysterious stained glass window embedded in the front door, and another older house that once lived on the property?
Relic presents possibilities more than it explains, but its power lies in those crevices between the mundane and the supernatural. Edna’s predicament is familiar to anyone who’s watched the life drain from a loved one; it’s the sort of routine reality that’s far scarier than genre fiction. Inevitable and devastating in ways you can’t comprehend until it’s stained on your life irrevocably.
James makes beautiful use of the haunted house trope, a subset of horror ripe with possibility. Houses, like humans, have souls. They breathe, they suffer, they die. They’re a useful vehicle for stories like these, about generational trauma and physical grief. Because they’re the setting for our stories. We embed ourselves inside of them until we’re memories in the walls, of mutual flesh. Relic makes this metaphor literal—and it’s haunting in fresh and clever ways.
My recurring dreams about my grandmother eventually stopped. We navigate these traumas, and sometimes we find the other side. There is a cathartic element to Relic that I will not articulate so not to spoil. You’ll know what I mean. Families bend and mold, too. And they heal.
Featured Image: IFC Midnight