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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Relic’s psychological terror is built into its creepy set design

Illustration for article titled iRelic/i’s psychological terror is built into its creepy set design
Photo: IFC Films

Note: Major plot points for Relic are revealed below.

Dementia is not linear. Its symptoms and onsets vacillate and evolve. Anger and accusations from its sufferers can tear families apart, which can be especially heartbreaking when those are the final memories a family may have of their loved one. It’s a traumatic experience, one to which Natalie Erika James’ debut film, Relic, applies the framework of supernatural horror—particularly haunted houses—portraying a real condition through a ghostly lens.

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Relic is, at its core, about three women trying to cope with encroaching dementia. Edna (Robyn Nevin), Kay (Emily Mortimer), and Sam (Bella Heathcote) represent three generations of women, each with her own complex relationship to the other. As the film opens, Kay and her daughter, Sam, head to check on grandmother Edna after having trouble getting in touch with her. When they arrive at the house, Edna is missing, but even upon her return they realize their fears are not unfounded. Edna is starting to lose her grip on reality, accusing Sam of taking things from her when they were given as gifts and fighting with Kay when she suggests she might need help.

However, moments of clarity still emerge. Edna tells her daughter and granddaughter stories about the house and tends to her candle making. But just as Kay and Sam start to wonder if they are unfairly underestimating Edna, she slides backwards, and her behavior veers into unpredictable territory. On its own, this cognitive decline might be enough to unsettle audiences, but as this is a horror film, there are other, more sinister elements at play. Relic tosses in supernatural terror to keep the audience guessing about the severity of Edna’s disease, and what might be nudging her further away from reality. But rather than an outside force, this unearthly element is physically manifested almost entirely in Edna’s house.

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Cinematic architecture is one of the most powerful tools a filmmaker can wield. In terms of mise en scène, rooms and walls encompass the interior world of a film or television series. A bright and shiny example of this is Pee-wee’s Playhouse, where Pee-wee’s (Paul Reubens) house is a reflection of this stunted man in brick and mortar, busy wallpaper and sentient furniture. More recently, the three living spaces at the center of Parasite each practically scream at the audience what they signify. Two exist physically below the social strata their occupants are drawn to and are working to attain—hidden, unless you are specifically looking for them. The grand mansion above has an invisible, quiet luxury, both the house and its inhabitants unaware of the privilege they carry.

More pertinent is the extreme example of the Sawyer family home from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Director Tobe Hooper and his production team decorated the house with all the creepy ephemera they could: A room filled with chickens, chicken feathers, and a sofa made from human bones does a lot to convey the warped minds of the people who live there, but the original state of the home sheds some light on the family, too. The house itself is unassuming, as if there was once love in those walls, a semblance of order and traditional American values. (In fact, the house that the film was shot in is now a restaurant that serves a delicious chicken-fried chicken.) But that is no longer the case with these Sawyers. The contrast between the horrific interior additions and the skeleton—no pun intended—of a good home shows us that something has gone terribly wrong in this family.

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When a filmmaker creates a perfectly immersive world for their characters and story, it can be hard to remember just how much intention is put behind their sets. With the exception of truly low-budget narrative films and documentaries, everything you see on screen is a choice. What sort of chairs would this woman have? Would her teacups all match? How tidy is she? The production design of a house can enhance our understanding of the character living there. In the case of Relic, it also shows us the changing nature of that character. As Edna’s mind disintegrates, so does her home.

Illustration for article titled iRelic/i’s psychological terror is built into its creepy set design
Photo: IFC Films
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Edna’s home is a reflection of herself and the relationship she had with her late husband, but her dementia means that Edna is often not who she used to be. Who Edna is, how she feels, and how she relates to reality shifts, and James draws inspiration from that to create a house that is not as fixed as we think. When Kay and Sam arrive at the house, they are struck by its signs of ill repair. It could use some tidying, but there’s also a stain emerging from over the fireplace, the kind of soggy wall that would make you worry about a leaky pipe above, but not so much that you believe the house to be structurally unsound. This is the first sign of Edna’s— and the house’s—undoing.

This telling feature is hinted at throughout, but only explored in the terrifying climax of the film. As the horror deepens, Kay and Sam both have to navigate a dark and cluttered hallway on the second floor of the house in order to save Edna. They go up one at a time, but cannot seem to find each other. The direction of the hallway changes, as does its width and height. It doubles back on itself without ever leading to a connecting room or closet. It’s filled with an unending stream of dusty chairs and boxes. As in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House Of Leaves, the hallway defies logic, and the deeper that Kay and Sam go into the space, the further they are from understanding it.

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That hallway is the most confounding, and yet most emblematic, way that Relic manifests Edna’s mental state through architecture. Her dementia is both ever-changing and resists a clear explanation. Her daughter and granddaughter are wading through a special representation of her mind, and there is no way they can understand it. Their proximity to her does not improve their grasp on what she is going through, or make it possible for them to relate to her. If anything, this murky layout prompts more questions than it answers.

Kay and Sam are frantic and terrified in that hallway, with good reason. They do not understand what is happening to them, their experience mirroring Edna’s own broken sense of reality. They feel claustrophobic, helpless, and lost. These feelings enhance the cinematic crescendo of their panic, because it also reflects the feelings that have been welling up between them and Edna. They want to reason with her and use their own clearer perceptions to deal with a woman who is cognitively fading, but ultimately their version of reality no longer has any place inside Edna’s home—or head. Edna’s spaces are scary and unpredictable, no matter how hard Sam and Kay fight it.

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In this way, director and co-writer James has found a succinct way to show us, through the production design of her home, how unstable Edna has become. The hysteria Kay and Sam go through whip the film into a frenzy, but after that is over, we are left with the horrible tragedy and sense of loss they feel about Edna’s fate. She is never going to be the woman she once was—and her house will never be the simple place it used to be either.

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