Call it slow burn, arthouse, psychological or (worst of all) elevated, but a shift towards atmospheric horror has become evident over the past few years. Films like The Witch, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, and Hereditary have all ventured down a similar path to varying levels of success, with filmmakers drawing inspiration from the late-60s and 70s to create balance in a genre that had become a little too Blumhouse-style heavy. Writer-director Natalie Erika James is the latest to the join the ranks with Relic, infusing considered pacing with J-horror influences to craft the best horror - and most emotionally charged - film of the year so far.
Horror filmmakers are usually focussed on terrorising audiences rather than growing emotional investment, and rarely will you see such an intimate and personal culmination to genre storytelling as the one crafted by James in her debut. Which is not to say her film is light on chills, while also showing an innate understanding of how to effectively use jump scares without cheapening them. But the emotional aspect is an unexpected layer you may not at first realise is present, which is part of what makes its unravelling so affective, as James delves into the hearts and minds of three generations of women and the cascading effect declining mental health has on all involved.
Relic also offers a fresh take on the classic haunted house film, its use of metaphor reminiscent of Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow. The story picks up with Kay (an excellent Emily Mortimer) being called out to her mother Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) remote countryside home accompanied by daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote). Edna has disappeared from the house and there’s a strange atmosphere lingering in the air, with banging sounds coming from the walls, post-it notes filled with cryptic messages and nightmarish dreams plaguing Kay at night.
The house has become a mess with boxes filled with family photos, trinkets and long-forgotten moments in time. Not long after Edna suddenly reappears both Kay and Sam can see she is suffering with deep memory loss and an unexplained black bruise on her chest seems to mirror the rising mould appearing in hidden corners of the house. Edna’s deterioration is heartbreaking to watch, at one point even scurrying into nearby woodland in a desperate attempt to hide treasured family photos so they remain protected from forces she believes are out to take them away.
James cleverly weaves in standard horror tropes to build tension around the family drama, leading you one way before diverting towards something unexpected. It creates the sense of an insidious presence watching the three women, with Charlie Sarroff’s cinematography hovering in doorways and spying silently in dark corners of the house. Stories about long-deceased relatives who led troubled lives in shacks built on the same land suggest something more sinister hiding in the shadows, while an old stained glass window connects the present to troubling horrors from the past. Slow zooms draw you into the drained colour palette, developing a growing sense of uncertainty about what is really going on.
Tightly wound at around 90 minutes, Relic doesn’t waste a minute of its time, seeping under the skin towards a devastating finale. The intergenerational conflicts between mothers and daughters, parent and child work their way through James’ writing, invoking the subtle back and forth of expectations and disappointments that one naturally pushes onto the other. Mortimer never misses a beat and her soft Australian accent sounds flawless (to less well-trained ears at least). She shows Kay as a loving daughter frustrated by her mother’s plight, while Nevin’s performance creates enough uncertainty about Edna’s true intentions towards her family without sacrificing the all-important empathy needed to care for her obvious distress.
Mention should also be given to sound designer Robert Mackenzie who makes a significant contribution to building an unsettling atmosphere, while Brian Reitzell’s chilling score works to keep you off balance. Events escalate towards the film’s final moments which may prove divisive for some as it offers no explanation, and for those who prefer explicit readings this could prove problematic. But the previous 80 minutes offer more than enough context to understand its meaning as James reminds us of the heart-wrenching reality we all face at some point. The truth being it is less about when and how it will happen and more about who is by your side to see you into the light.
Relic is available to watch on VOD and digital platforms and in select theatres and drive-ins from July 10.