Relic Proves Horror Is The Genre To Portray The Terrors Of Womanhood

Relic by Natalie Erika James is a slowburn horror exploding in one of the most powerful endings of recent years. Such an impactful final scene would have not been possible, had the movie not sprung from a place of love as well as fear. 

James’ 2020 feature-length debut and her previous shorts all explore deeply personal dreads. The Japanese-Australian filmmaker manages to dig into the darkest corners of womanhood, tackling such tumultuous inner and outer conflicts in a compassionate manner. 

An excellent flip on the haunted house drama, Relic revolves around three generations of women. The movie trades jump scares for a nerve-racking buildup that rewards its audience in the show-stopping final act. The last frames incapsulate the strength of matriarchal relationships, together with providing viewers with an upsetting vision of the future. 

Relic is tender and terrifying at once

Every bit heartbreaking as it is scary, Relic is an empathetic look at dementia and the decline of body and mind. Tapping into her private experience — her maternal grandmother had Alzheimer’s — James masters the balance between truly terrifying and surprisingly sweet moments. Fans of the genre shouldn’t fret as fear is definitely there, too. The horror of Relic comes from slowly losing one’s grip on memories and physical objects alike. And this goes both ways. The disease is, quite literally, consuming protagonist Edna (an incredible Robyn Nevin). Nonetheless, it takes time for her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) to realize, or perhaps accept, she’s no longer the woman they used to know and love.

Courtesy of IFC Midnight

This sense of progressive alienation thrives in the slow-paced development. It is a painful-to-watch process that mirrors the way dementia infiltrates the lives of those who have it. Edna’s light dims with every creaky sound of her house or black bruise she discovers on her frail body. Her slipping away plays on practical allegories. James beautifully conveys this deterioration through the German-style candles Edna carves, going from perfectly crafted to disturbingly deformed.

James proves there’s place for empathy amid the horror of the everyday. As both Edna and her house are becoming unfamiliar, Sam and Kay, and by extension the audience, are endeared to her. There isn’t real-life horror without emotions, says James.

“When you’re talking about the end of someone’s life or the heartbreak of watching someone lose themselves and decay, you can’t have one without the other, they’re so intrinsically linked,” the filmmaker explains in a talk on the making of Relic held during London Film Festival.

Female familial relationships in Relic

The filmmaker revealed that the first draft of the script included two male characters, Kay’s husband and son. However, James and her writing partner, Christian White decided to leave those two men behind to focus on the female familial ties.

“It also came naturally because it was my mother’s mother who had Alzheimer’s so there was already that tri-generational setup”

Natalie Erika James

James also cited a series of paintings by 16th century German artist Hans Baldung as one of her influences. Whoever has seen Relic will recognize in The Three Ages of Woman and Death, particularly, a kinship to the characters. Three women at different stages in their life, the subjects in the 1510 painting are stand-ins for the protagonist. Like her counterpart in the painting, Sam is too busy enjoying her youth to notice that old age is approaching.

The younger character sees the horrors of deterioration and death as still too far away to contemplate. That is until she starts noticing the changes in her grandmother’s attitude, in her eyes, on her body. It is significant that the younger character is also the one experiencing the terror of the haunted house firsthand. Unlike Kay, Sam needs to go through this terrifying, supernatural rite of passage. When she descends into the labyrinth of her grandmother’s house — bigger on the inside than it appears on the outside — it isn’t this suddenly hostile place she should be afraid of. Chased by her own future, Sam finally opens her eyes to the transience of life: she, too, is decaying.

Compassion for the ‘wronged woman’

This realization fosters compassion for Edna and the menacing creature she is morphing into. James explained she thought of Asian horror movies and the trope of the “wronged woman” the audience ultimately empathize with. Her love for the genre allowed her to carry over a feeling of understanding towards her protagonist.

A former “fearful child,” James proves that slowburn horror is the best genre to externalize the terrors of womanhood. The director is currently working on a feature from her 2018 short Drum Wave.

Like the short, the film will explore the protagonist’s fear of motherhood amid a disturbing folkloristic fertility ritual. The movie will incorporate Japanese mythology into the traditions of British folklore à la The Wicker Man. Rosemary’s Baby is also another title that comes to mind, as James promises a sophomore feature about “creation and birth, selfhood and motherhood” we can’t wait to watch.

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