The latest in a steady stream of dramatic horror gems from Australasia, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Relic is that its themes of dementia and familial effects can be felt in every microfibre of the film.

It isn’t just the opening shot of the overflowing bath and the water making its way down the staircase and pooling around the perfectly still feet of vulnerable Edna (Robyn Nevin) that signals what James’ film is all about. Though this opening does — in less than a minute and completely devoid of dialogue — set up the story perfectly, it is an overt representation of something that occurs in a much more sophisticated fashion over the lean 89-minute run-time. The spectre of dementia can be found everywhere. It is in the film’s darkest corners and deepest depths, and figuratively speaking in its very DNA.

Relic’s true horror is found in the sagging, untended tennis net in the overgrown garden; the unsettling whirs and clanks and roars of the off-kilter sound design; the low eaves of Edna’s house that intrude upon dimly lit rooms to create a palpable claustrophobia (and an almost 1920s expressionist touch resonant of the unsettling angles of Robert Weine’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Paul Leni’s Waxworks). It is in Sam’s (Bella Heathcote) ordeal in the supernaturally labyrinthine passages of Edna’s home, a structure once familiar but suddenly rendered unrecognisable and unknowable (a transformation so terrifying that it literally attacks its inhabitants in the film’s most conventional ‘horror’ sequence). 

It is even in the sombre (and perfect) finale; a physical manifestation of the mental degradation of Alzheimer’s subtly reminds us that it is a hereditary illness. That family history means even the youngest, healthiest members of the family must come to realise a terrible fate awaits them, one from which there is no escape. 

The character dynamics also play into this notion. Emily Mortimer’s Kay is trapped between (and somewhat estranged from) her mother and her daughter, a predicament that dares us to turn these familial cues into hope that Edna’s condition might skip a generation. There are times when Edna and Sam’s relationship is touching and affectionate, only for them to be completely alienated in the very next scene, a clear indicator of the unpredictable transitions between moments of lucidity and confusion that perfectly illustrates dementia’s effects. 

This goes some way to making Relic a much more nuanced and layered study of dementia and its alienating effects than other lauded horror films that tackle the subject (Ari Aster’s Hereditary; Adam Robitel’s Taking of Deborah Logan). The screenplay does an exceptional job, creating thematic cues throughout, while everything from the direction to the art design helps the central theme to permeate every single film cell.

Robyn Nevin
Emily Mortimer
Bella Heathcote

Natalie Erika James

Natalie Erika James
Christian White

18 Jan 2021

Posted by Matt Rogerson

Matt Rogerson is a PAGE International Screen Awards finalist and has bylines at Diabolique, Dread Central, Horror Homeroom, and He is currently writing a series of books on Italian horror, covering the Vatican's attitudes towards genre cinema, and Roman Catholic themes in Lucio Fulci's filmography.