Friday 9 October 2020

Relic (Natalie Erika James, 2020)


This debut feature from Natalie Erika James has been hyped as one of the year's better horror films but, despite laying some excellent groundwork, it ultimately takes the audience down a well-trodden path that proves to be much less fun than its setup promised.  Despite a trio of decent performances and some fine production values, this Australian feature just doesn't have enough about it to carry it over the line.  Relic plays as one of three films in the Cult strand at this year's London Film Festival, which has been streamlined in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; the film screens at the LFF from today until Monday. Viewers in Australia can watch the film via Stan, and it is also available on other platforms, including Prime Video and iTunes.

When the elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing from her remote home, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) arrive to join the search for the vulnerable old woman.  Kay and Sam find Edna's house locked from the inside, and although they manage to find a way into the building, there are no clues as to what has happened to its owner.  The house is littered with Post-it notes containing basic reminders for Edna, and there's a strange black mould growing on the walls.  The pair settle into their temporary home, then join the hunt for the missing relative.  After a lengthy, fruitless search through the nearby woods, hope starts to fade, but Edna suddenly reappears in her house, seemingly unaware of her absence and none too appreciative of the exasperated Kay's numerous questions.   

Edna is examined by a doctor who finds no major problems, although there is a strange bruise on her chest.  Kay is still far from happy with the situation and makes an appointment to look round a Melbourne nursing home; Sam, who disagrees with this plan, tells Edna about this and offers to move in with her gran in order to avoid the need for the care home.  All is far from well in the house: Kay notices a strange, indistinct organism under Edna's bed; Sam discovers a secret passageway to another section of the building; and Edna tries to eat, then bury, a family photo album as she feels these measures are safer than leaving it inside the house.  Edna's behaviour grows yet more erratic, and she violently retrieves a ring she'd previously gifted to Sam, claiming her granddaughter had stolen it from her.  Jamie, a neighbour with Down Syndrome, refuses to enter the house when Sam invites him in, and it is later revealed that on his last visit a game of hide-and-seek went horribly wrong when Edna locked the young man in a cupboard and proceeded to forget he was in there.      

Relic does well to create an unsettling atmosphere, but unfortunately can't sustain it for anything like the duration of its running time.  The scenes in which Sam wanders through endless, looping hallways recall similar stretches in Mark Z. Danielewski's excellent novel House of Leaves, but unfortunately Relic is missing the spark that made that book so memorably chilling.  Of the three main performers, Heathcote is the most impressive, and she makes Sam a sympathetic, believable young woman, one who has her own problems long before she arrives at her grandmother's home;  Mortimer and Nevin are similarly committed, and the performances really can't be faulted.  While Relic has something interesting to say about the futility of watching elderly loved ones go into mental and physical decline, it's ultimately an understuffed, predictable and unsatisfying film, albeit one that demonstrates a certain talent on the part of James; it would be interesting to see what she might come up with if armed with a much stronger script. 

Darren Arnold