Review: ‘Relic’ is an Impressive Horror Debut from Natalie Erika James
By Daniel Rester
Relic is the feature debut from Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James. She also shares writing credit with Christian White, while Jake Gyllenhaal is a producer on the project. The film announces James as a fresh new voice in horror, with Relic being a somber and intelligent horror feature.
A lot of Relic feels like a chamber piece as we focus on one location and three characters the majority of the time. Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) arrive at Kay’s mom’s house in the woods after the elderly woman goes missing. The mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), is suffering from dementia and has a history with an old house that used to sit on her property.
James uses the horror visuals as an allegory for dementia-related hardships in Relic. Symbolism like rotting human flesh and black mold on walls come into play. A lot of the film deals with the subject of dementia as drama too though as Kay and Edna often argue about Edna forgetting things. Kay also struggles with the idea of possibly putting Edna in an old folks facility.
The first twenty minutes and last twenty minutes are where Relic shines the most. James builds things up quietly and disturbingly in the beginning, while the climax is quite haunting and bold. The film is beautifully framed at times as well, capturing the gloom of the property well. Sagging tennis nets, dirty pool covers, and more are used as transitional shots, but they actually add to the atmosphere instead of feeling like throwaway bits.
The middle is where Relic drags a little. Some of the arguments and “noises in the dark” moments feel repetitive. Also, there is a sameness to a lot of the scenes’ lighting, with shadowy textures used even in non-horror scenes. People who despise rainy-and-dark-on-constant looks to movies will likely be annoyed here. It didn’t bother me too much, but I would have liked to have seen a little more variety to the images.
The three leading ladies are all strong here, but it’s Nevin who stands out. She paints a realistic portrait of dementia before believably layering in the horror elements of the character. It reminded me a bit of Jill Larson’s work in The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), a similarly-themed horror film.
Relic is a solid debut that flirts with brilliance at times. Nevin is the film’s anchor while James shows great promise despite a few missteps. I’d love to see more thematically-rich, female-centered horror dramas like Relic come along.
My Grade: 7.2/10 (letter grade equivalent: B)
MPA Rating: R (for some horror violence/disturbing images, and language)
Running Time: 1h 29min
USA Release Date: July 10th, 2020 (VOD)