Debutante filmmaker Natalie Erika James adds dementia and motherhood to the ingredients of her menu of horror, although some old tropes remain.



Robyn Nevin: scene stealer 


Horror is perhaps the most subjective of genres. What scares one person might make another laugh. As terror is locked deep inside the psyche, there is a subconscious element to what frightens. There are some seemingly universal spooks and scares that linger on from childhood. Is there something in the dark? A creature under the bed? A stranger standing just outside the reach of the light? Adulthood marks a change in fear. There is a near universal constant despair; what will happen to my mind when I grow old?


Relic is the debut feature of the Australian writer/director Natalie Erika James, and seeks to examine the lingering and constant unease brought about by this meditation. Kay (played wonderfully by the consistently fantastic Emily Mortimer) must go to the country to locate her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin, the scene stealer), who has been missing for about a week. Kay brings her own daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), a young woman classically frustrated with the direction of her life. The narrative that follows explores the intergenerational drama of two mothers and two daughters trying to make sense of their relationships to each other, themselves, and their histories.


This is where Relic is strongest. There is indeed a traditional haunted house backdrop. The production design is gorgeously evocative. What appears at first to be the result of neglect on the part of an aging and forgetful Edna constantly threatens to be something more ominous. The walls are covered in a black mould, the floorboards are just too creaky. Doors slam shut randomly (or do they?). There’s also plenty of gruesome imagery to keep genre-aficionados engaged and satisfied. But there are downsides to soaking your drama in a horror-film aesthetic. The score is noticeable derivative of mainstream frightfests. There is the ever-present violin sting, which seems to be legally obligatory in any ‘scary movie’ released. Pair that with a few predictable and cheap jump scares, and a gray filter thrown atop the picture almost like an afterthought, and you’ve got a film that borders on cliché.


James does save her project from being dismiss-able, however, by writing a brutal and gut-wrenching story about motherhood, daughterhood, aging, and the fickleness of memory. Anyone who has experienced the pain of watching a loved one go through dementia is sure to have a visceral reaction. Mortimer is the centerpiece. Her sublime ability to seamlessly blend anger, frustration, fear, and sadness is the emotional focal point. Nevin is the secret weapon. She is equal parts hilarious, charming, and sinister. Her fluidity keeps the audience on its toes. Is she lucid? Has her mind deteriorated? Is she even herself, or is she something else, something darker and malicious? 


The standard and predictable technical aspects threaten to get in the way of the wonderful and subtle storytelling, but thankfully they never quite succeed. Relic is, overall, a more than decent first feature that shows a deep well of promise and imagination on the part of the filmmaker.


Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Chris Bunton, Steve Rodgers, Catherine Clavicic, Jeremy Stanford, Christina O’Neill, John Browning, Robin Northover.

Dir Natalie Erika James, Pro Jake Gyllenhaal, Anthony Russo, Joe  Russo, Wang Zhonglei, Wang Zhongjun, Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw, Riva Marker, Todd Makurath, Mike Larocca and Hu Junyi, Screenplay Natalie Erika James and Christian White, Ph Charlie Sarroff, Pro Des Steven Jones-Evans, Ed Denise Haratzis and Sean Lahiff, Music Brian Reitzell, Costumes Louise McCarthy, Sound Glenn Newnham, Chris Goodes, Robert Mackenzie, Steve Burgess, Mick Boraso, Ryan Granger and Adam Hunt.

Screen Australia/Film Victoria/Nine Stories Productions/AGBO/Carver Films-IFC Midnight.
89 mins. Australia/USA. 2020. US Rel: 3 July 2020. Cert. R.