Horror, perhaps more so than any other, is a genre that revels in references to other similar films, creating an endless dialogue that you can trace all the way back to films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Natalie Erika James' directorial debut Relic follows this tradition by nodding to a few grand horror traditions, as well as fitting nicely within the canon of some contemporary works, in a way that produces a genuinely unsettling atmosphere. Even on a digital viewing the film managed to creep me out with its small scale and focus on minute disturbing details.
After a festive yet chilling cold open, we discover that an old woman named Edna has been missing for several days. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) have arrived to search for her despite some apparent tension and estrangement throughout the three generations. It becomes apparent that Edna isn't as mentally sound as she insists, and Kay and Sam clash over how to handle her as the threat lurking within the old family home becomes more and more apparent. Relic is definitely a slow-burner, with plenty of scenes that simply exist to build tension or create a certain mood - I appreciate this, but if you like a quicker pace, this could be an understandable turn-off.
Another controversial element of this film, which reminded me strongly of Darren Aronofsky's Mother!, is how blatantly it exists as an allegory. Here, the plot is a metaphor for dementia and ageing, which can certainly be a disturbing basis for a story and does make for some upsetting moments and visuals (Edna's growing wound, for instance). However, it occasionally feels a little too obvious, detracting from the mystery of the horror by constantly reminding you of exactly what Relic is about. There were also points at which the othering of elderly bodies felt somewhat disrespectful; while classics like The Shining have used this tactic, simply displaying a nude elderly person for a reaction does deny them a certain level of dignity.
As implied earlier, the style of Relic is rather derivative of other horrors that have come out over the past ten years, particularly Ari Aster's Hereditary and M. Knight Shyamalan's The Visit. As well as thematically exploring generational trauma and fears surrounding ageing, the film also uses a similarly slow paced and grounded aesthetic to deliver scares, with a focus on creepy motifs and psychological horror. My favourite sequence was one in which Sam finds herself lost in the maze of the once-familiar home, a disturbing concept that Heathcote sells brilliantly with a panicked and desperate performance
While Relic isn't the most original horror film, that isn't necessarily a mark against it - some concepts are inherently more scary than others, and there are some tried and true ways to freak an audience out. Regardless, the intense performances from the three leads and James' use of space create an experience that will leave you truly unsettled, especially on the big screen. I, for one, will never look at mould lurking in the corner of a room in the same way again.
Relic is released in UK cinemas and digital platforms on October 30.