When my grandfather died it was the little things about his death that added up. Specifically it was the chore of cleaning out the house. A piece of property that was so intensely personal to the occupant and so inherently strange to everyone else. His house managed to capture his (read our) entire life while making space for countless boxes of clutter. In short a death in the family makes any house haunted. It’s with this background I approached Relic the newest release from IFC Midnight. Relic was supposed to be a midnighter at SXSW but will now gets its release at drive-ins and living rooms across the country. In a lot of ways the personal feeling of this movie makes those viewing environments preferable.
Kay (Emily Mortimer) has gone back home to check on her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin)who has gone missing. Kay’s resignation to her mother’s absence seems to indicate Edna’s dissent into dementia has been a long time coming. Kay also brings her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) both as moral support but also another set of hands to help look for Edna. Sam and Edna are close and it’s clear there would be no keeping her away from the family home. When Edna returns from the woods as if everything was normal Sam and Kay must face the reality that things are most decidedly NOT normal.
Relic is terrifying. Not in the traditional jump-scare horror movie way, but rather in a deep and existential way that makes us want to curl up in a corner. If Hereditary was about reliving the sins of our parents than Relic is about the inevitability of becoming our parents. Or maybe even worse, that our children will become our parents and we are powerless to stop that transformation.
Director Natalie Erika James builds atmosphere better than any other director I have seen this year. The house has a life of its own and a dinginess that only comes from years of leaky pipes and dogs peeing on carpets. James gives us a real house that somehow feels both familiar and entirely alien. She manages to give us that feeling of visiting your grandma’s house. I love to visit, but would be freaked out to live there.
James also provides us with a story that is intensely personal and feminine. The role between grandma, daughter, and granddaughter is unlike any other relationship. The competition and complexity is well on display throughput the film but none of it would work if we didn’t believe that all three loved each other with a fierceness that makes all of the rest of the film believable.
The atmosphere in this movie comes entirely from a house that has come alive. Relic is billed as a haunted house film and I think if you had to place it in a sub category that would fit as well as any. The house in Relic is its own creature. It moves. It makes sounds. It keeps secrets. It does all of these things while also displaying a general level of clutter that makes it feel like an older person lives there. That older person has slowly lost the ability to take care of the house, so the house then in turn has decided to take care of it’s resident. As a result the scenes of piles of newspaper, or endless stacks of knickknacks that permeate every nook and cranny of the house made me feel claustrophobic. That claustrophobia feels especially real because the atmosphere feels so recognizable.
Mortimor, Heathcote, and Nevin as an ensemble work on every level. A grandmother’s sole job is often to love their grandchildren. Full stop, that is what they do. While a parent’s relationship is so much more complex. They must set rules and boundaries and raise their children to be successful (however they may define that). The tension comes from how each of those relationships can come in conflict with one another. How those different types of love can be weaponized when families are fighting. Kay is left in the impossible position of helping her aging mother while trying to devote the time and energy that is necessary to finish raising her own daughter. That impossible position is where a number of families find themselves. It is often lonely, and dark, and utterly terrifying. Relic shines brightest in those places of darkness.
Tyler has been the editor in chief of Signal Horizon since its conception. He is also the Director of Monsters 101 at Truman State University a class that pairs horror movie criticism with survival skills to help middle and high school students learn critical thinking. When he is not watching, teaching or thinking about horror he is the Director of Debate and Forensics at a high school in Kansas City, Missouri.