Haunted horror boasts many hits, leaning on manifestations of family trauma, spooky homes and life as a tragedy, and Relic leans on every one of them. That’s not to label it cliché, as it most certainly isn’t, but it’s a collection of some of the better and modern themes thrown around haunted horror.
When her elderly mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing, Kay (Emily Mortimer), and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), set off to find her. Reflecting on their shattered relationship, Kay seems uneasy in her mother’s home, which used to be hers as well. When Edna shows back up suddenly, Kay and Sam sense something might not be right with her, catapulting the three women into a mess of trauma, distrust and hints of madness.
The simple and contained story takes place over a few days but reaches through the characters’ entire past. What’s a story about a missing woman suddenly afraid of the dark is more of a story of the changing roles we experience with age. Kay and Sam are visiting a mother and grandmother respectively, but Kay is forced to change from Edna’s daughter to her caregiver, a traumatic experience to be expected as our parents get older. Kay struggles with her new role, but not more than Edna who is unwilling to allow her daughter to take control of her life. Kay bickers and interrogates her elderly mother about cryptic notes and blood stains the way a mother might bicker with her child about cigarettes and beer stains. Edna’s turns from sweet and in need of care to rageful and terrifying feel like a magnified version of the raging teenager Kay very well could have been. That frustration is on display in Edna screaming, “I’m still your mother” shortly after a scene where she asks Kay to check for a monster hidden under her bed.
Though frustrating that the film leaves breadcrumbs of a deeper spooky story than it delivers on, it’s refreshing that it doesn’t try to take on too much. Those who want the explanation and the ghost’s name like in Hereditary might be left unsatisfied, and those that appreciate atmospheric unexplained phenomena like in The Turning or Under the Skin will be more comfortable here. Though the tone is screaming to be compared to Hereditary, its cohorts are more of the atmospheric haunted house variety.
Natalie Erika James is stronger here as the director than as the writer (she co-wrote the film with Christian White), though it’s possible in knowing what she was going to deliver, she kept the writing simpler with intent. The fear lives in the audio and the visuals. From a sound perspective, it does what Hereditary does by creating a constant sense of unease. It crackles, it wooshes, and the scene of Kay casually trying to play a familiar track on piano and never making it through the first few bars is a masterclass in frustration and withholding audience satisfaction. It’s early in the film and sets off that sense of unease on which the scares rely.
Visually, it’s dark and brooding and the monster you have to squint to see is spooky. It lends to the unsure feeling you sense in Kay and Sam who can’t quite understand what’s happening. The entire feel is creepy crawly and will leave you slapping your skin to rid it of phantom bugs that aren’t there. They aren’t in the movie either. It’s that effective.
With it’s contained story of the ever-changing roles of three generations of women, Relic succeeds in creating a moody tale of real fears that manifest in atmospheric scares. It’s a tense fright that will leave you aghast if you’re willing to let it.