‘Relic’: Dementia’s gonna get you

Writer/director Natalie Erika James is an exciting new voice in horror

What’s scarier than mortality? Watching the light go out of a parent’s eyes. Relic, writer/director Natalie Erika James’ feature debut, explores the horror of parental end-of-life in a way that some will lump together with the likes of The Babadook and Hereditary, but it deserves a viewing with fresh eyes.

 

If you simply must triangulate where Relic fits among recent entries in horror, it’s somewhere between The Babadook and Under the Skin. It never approaches the tone of, say, Unsane or Hereditary. Instead, it plays very straight with the idea of a mother and daughter navigating a grandmother’s sharp decline.

Relic begins with Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) on their way to visit Kay’s elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin). Worried neighbors haven’t seen Edna for days, so Kay and Sam settle in Edna’s home, holding out hope someone will find her. When Edna finally turns up days later, seemingly no worse for wear and with no explanation, it begins a series of uncomfortable and escalating confrontations between the three women. Is Edna entering into advanced stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia, or is something more sinister taking hold of this once-caring woman?


RELIC ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: Natalie Erika James
Written by: Natalie Erika James
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote, Robyn Nevin
Running time: 89 min


 

Relic delivers best when approached less as dementia horror and more as a rumination on why it eviscerates us when our protectors become our wards and eventually spiral out of our grasp. It’s a creeping, terrible reckoning that is likely to stay with you more than any shadowy monster could.

The comparison to recent psychological examinations packaged as horror arises most likely from Relic’s drab color grading and grounded family drama. But what Relic offers differently from those other films is something approaching empathetic capitulation rather than an artificial catharsis or pacifying triumph over a tormentor. None of us can escape this. It’s terrifying and it will get you, too. Understand it and accept it.

Under normal circumstances this approach to the topic would shake anyone who experienced a loving relationship with their parents, but the era of coronavirus, with its toll on those of advanced age, casts a devastating pall over the proceedings here, no matter how unforeseen.

But there’s a bright silver lining. While Relic plays with the end of the lifecycle, it simultaneously signals the exciting birth of a new voice in horror. We have much to look forward to if James can keep delivering horror features like this.

Relic
‘Relic,’ directed by Natalie Erika James.

Pablo Gallaga

Pablo Gallaga is a former video blogger and recapper for Television Without Pity (RIP). You can probably find him at an Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. He will thwart your alien invasion by uploading a rudimentary computer virus to your mothership using a 1996 Apple Powerbook and no Wi-Fi.

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