One day, everyone you know and love will die. Much of human endeavor is built around trying to either ignore or defy this immutable truth, but we all carry it with us anyway, sitting heavily on our chests like the snub-nosed incubus in John Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare. If we’re lucky enough to have parents who live to see old age, the inevitability of decay becomes a little harder to turn away from with every passing year: First, you notice them getting stiff, then grey. Then, suddenly, they’re old. And their bodies and minds begin to fall apart—which means that soon enough yours will too.
Mortality and the fear of the unknown that comes with it is the foundation of all horror, but rarely is the nature of death explored in as terrifying and tender a fashion as it is in Natalie Erika James’ Relic. James hails from Australia, and as her countrywoman Jennifer Kent did with The Babadook, James approaches domestic horror from the perspective of an overburdened and exasperated caretaker—in this case, Kay (Emily Mortimer), who’s called back to her childhood home when her elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing. Accompanied by her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), Kay searches for clues that might help them locate Edna in her crumbling, cluttered house. But when Edna reappears as inexplicably as she disappeared, showing startling symptoms of dementia and offering no explanation for where she went, the true horror of the situation begins to reveal itself.
Relic opens under the warm glow of Christmas lights, a cozy tableau that immediately turns disturbing as Nevin enters the frame, a towel draped haphazardly over her naked body and her hair wild and unkempt. That’s emblematic of Relic’s approach to horror, which, like The Babadook and Ari Aster’s Hereditary, grounds its supernatural terror in the violation of sacred family bonds. Watching a loved one die is always horrific, but dementia makes it especially so, as the patient not only slips away mentally, but lashes out in angry and hurtful ways as they do so. Relic offers more in the way of haunted-house thrills than those films, however—particularly in its last third, when the house itself seems to come to life, trapping Kay and Sam in a metaphorical manifestation of the locked doors and labyrinthine passages in Edna’s mind.
James accompanies these images with a visual motif of mold and decay, beginning with a water stain on the mantel over Edna’s fireplace and culminating in an emotionally devastating gut punch of a finale. She and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff enshroud the entire film in a musty gray that mimics the growing rot on Edna’s chest, a tint that grows darker and more impenetrable as the horror deepens. Accompanied by sound effects that sound like a parched throat struggling to take in choked breath, the effect is like being on the inside of a haunted catacomb.
Combined with realistically messy family dynamics and expert turns from the ensemble cast—particularly Nevin, whose performance forges boldly into challenging territory—the result is powerful, if a style of horror audiences have grown used to in a post-A24 world. Dismissing the film on those grounds would be unfair, however—not only because of its funhouse climax and the creature effects that accompany it, but because of the clarity, artistry, and emotional heft of James’ and co-writer Christian White’s vision.
The monster in Relic is difficult to put into any conventional category. It’s invasive, but also inherent; metaphorical, but also a physical entity; sinister, but also poignant. It’s not a ghost, not a curse, and not a mummy, although it does contain aspects of all of those things. Its most defined (and scariest) aspect is that by the time you see its true face, it’s too late. First it will come for your parents, then it will come for you, and then it will come for your children—much like the ultimate horror, death itself.