The first story we read in my freshman year college lit class was Franz Kafka's “The Metamorphosis.” Our professor asked us what we thought it meant afterward. Everyone had some grand theory about what the story represented. After listening to our deeply-considered ideas, he said, “Nah, it's just a really good story about a guy who turns into a bug.” I was reminded of that while watching Relic. You can certainly take it as a metaphor for dementia, mental illness, or the horror of watching a parent decline in old age. You can also just see it as a really good movie about a freaky grandma. But it's definitely more fun to do the first thing.
Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive to the country home of Kay's mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) after being informed by police that she hasn't been seen in a while. They nervously enter the house, pretty much expecting to find her dead. Instead, she's simply not there. The women stick around for a few days, going through her stuff and waiting to see what happens. Edna then shows up out of nowhere, with no explanation for her disappearance.
The return comes with some highly unusual repercussions. Edna begins acting strangely, and she's got a weird dark bruise on her body. Kay starts having nightmares related to a rundown old cottage in the woods out back. Most distressingly, the house itself shows signs of life. (I won't tell you how, because that detail provides the best shock moments in the film.) As Edna declines more and more, all the other stuff becomes more pronounced. Gorgeously moody cinematography and inventive production design combine to create an ominous vibe.
Relic is a slow burn chiller – one possibly too slow for viewers looking for non-stop Conjuring-style jump scares – that uses Edna's house as a metaphor for her physical/mental health. Although the plot eventually unveils a root cause for the supernatural goings-on, it's pretty clear that director Natalie Erika James and co-writer Christian White have bigger ideas in mind. Kay observes her mother going downhill, and each nightmare or oddity within the home goes down a level in sync with her. In other words, the fear that she has watching her mother's well-being fade is visualized through horror elements. The film addresses the anxiousness that comes from knowing an aging parent has one foot out the door and the other heading in the same direction.
Nevin is very good as Edna, suggesting how far the character is from who she once was. The heavy lifting, however, is on Mortimer and Heathcote, both of whom rise to the occasion. They convey the worry and dismay Kay and Sam experience as they bear witness to everything that transpires. The women are left, as is often the case in real life, doing what they can to aid Edna, yet still feeling helpless in trying to stop something that's inevitably coming. Although there are traditional horror factors in Relic, the scariest material is seeing how these two characters get pulled into a sense of despair.
To successfully make an ambitious, thematically-rich chiller, sticking the landing is vital. Relic has a final scene unlike any I've ever seen before. James delivers a conclusion that mixes grotesque imagery and emotional power in a manner that's perfect. The film's slow pace may intermittently cause it to feel as though the plot is treading water, but the payoff makes it all worthwhile. You don't necessarily expect to get choked up at the end of a scary picture, which makes this thoughtful movie all the more special.
out of four
Relic is rated R for some horror violence/disturbing images, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 29 minutes.