MOVIE REVIEW: RELIC is a haunting allegory of the gradual loss of self inherent in aging and dementia.


Director Natalie Erika James explores the weakening bonds of family relationships as one grows old and the ravages of mental illness that can take hold through the lens of body horror in RELIC.

One of my greatest fears in life is developing dementia in my old age. There’s a family history of it in my family and I’ve always been somewhat absent-minded and forgetful. The fear that those moments I lose in thought could define my existence for years leading to my death is one that I find terrifying on an existential level. I don’t have kids and I don’t have a lot of close connections, aside from my immediate family, so the other question is who would take care of me in that possible condition. To be robbed of your independence and lose everything that defines you is something most people can identify with as true horror.

It is these themes that director Natalie Erika James explores in the film RELIC, opening on VOD July 10th. Relic follows Edna (Robyn Niven) the elderly matriarch of her family who lives alone in a country house in Australia. As the film starts we know something is wrong with Edna as her tub overflows and the water pours down the stairs of her aging and moldy home until it reaches her nude form staring at a window. The home’s state of disrepair mirrors Edna, who suddenly goes missing. Her estranged daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (The Neon Demon’s Bella Heathcote) head back to their homestead to try and find her. As it turns out, Edna’s not been well for a while. They see post-it notes trying to remind Edna to flush the toilet and all manner of everyday things. Kay and Sam’s relationship isn’t in the best shape either, as Sam suggests moving into Edna’s home to keep an eye on her while Kay looks to move Edna to a home in Melbourne after hearing how she locked up a local neighbor boy after forgetting the two were playing hide and seek. Moreover, Edna suddenly reappears out of the blue after days of searching for her. As Kay makes strides to try and close the gap between herself and her mother that is ever-widening, the house itself seems to come alive with rot and mold and rooms appearing through cracks in the walls. It begins to raise the question if Edna is just going mad, or is she going mad and the house is going along with her, with the rot and mold all over the walls beginning to appear on Edna’s body as well as she and her house seem to become one and the same.

RELIC is the first movie that has legitimately creeped me out in years and that is in a world where films like Hereditary exist. The deliberate methodical pace draws you in, coupled with eerie claustrophobic cinematography by Charlie Saroff and a haunting score by Hannibal’s Brian Ritzell, that both work hand in hand to build a sense of looming inescapable dread. Relic invokes the modern-day creeping suspense found in films like Hereditary and The Visit, but creates its own unique atmosphere. None more so than when Sam becomes trapped in the rotting walls of her grandmother’s home and the claustrophobic fear she experiences trying to escape seems to rot the home’s infrastructure, but seemingly also her grandmother’s condition. Heathcote and Niven have great natural chemistry on screen, but it is the relationship between Mortimer’s Kay and Nivens’ character that defines the story. It’s a pained relationship with a lot of regrets and she fears the same is happening with her and her own daughter. Kay enables Edna’s increasingly odd behavior, but it isn’t until a pivotal scene where Kay sees the extent of Edna’s descent into her condition in this home, that she comes to appreciate there is something more malevolent at play. Heathcote’s Sam serves as the heart of the film; she cares for her grandma, but her relationship with both her mother and grandmother is strained. On an allegorical level, the film’s relationship with senescence and mental illness underscores a lot of what is happening here. The stain and rot that appear on Edna and the house are the creeping dread of losing herself and as more of her home is affected, she loses what makes her uniquely herself. This is really underscored in a powerful scene involving a photo album that plays out with the film’s final act as well as the heartbreaking evolution of the post-it notes Edna leaves herself and how her relationship with her family devolves as she loses herself.

Overall, RELIC is a terrifying film, at once part of the wave of films like Hereditary and Midsommar that explore themes of broken families and relationships with the backdrop of horror as narrative. But James’ story and direction make the film seem very visceral and real as opposed to the artifice inherent in Hereditary’s religious cult plot. The horror in RELIC is that the film’s monster is very real and it is generational and genetic and seeing it like a monster is the only way we can control our human reaction to it. We forget that we love the person underneath that artifice and losing sight of that is the true horror.