Emotional layers laid bare

21 December 2020

I often hear the same criticism of horror films from my scare-averse friends: 'Why would you want to watch something so horrible?'. 

In the case of some films, I might agree with them. I’m not going to waste any time vouching for the gratuitous violence in Hostel: Part II for instance, but I believe these ‘horrible’ stories can be used as a meaningful metaphor. Great horror films immerse you in a terrifying story that, although not true or possible, resonate with a real life situation. Like the trauma and grief tearing a family apart in Hereditary or the horrors of teenage sexual exploration in It Follows, these allegorical tales are so affecting because they give you a glimpse of the terror that people really experience. It is precisely this which makes director Natalie Erika James’ recent film such a masterpiece. Relic is an emotionally harrowing portrayal of ageing and memory through a surrealist horror lens that somehow left me both teary-eyed and petrified

When Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) rush up to her remote house in the woods, to try and get a bearing on what has happened. What they discover is a door locked from the inside and a house covered in post-it note reminders that vary from the inane to the eerie. The armchair that had sat in the same place for years, judging from the dents in the carpet, is now positioned to keep watch out of the window. There is a clear sense that something is not right. Is it Edna’s memory problems playing tricks on her, or are there other forces at play? 

The three characters take familiar roles in a story about dementia – the stoic grandmother who thinks she’s fine, the busy mother who feels guilty for not doing more and the idealistic daughter who thinks she can fix it – but through surreal imagery and a semi-haunted house narrative it digs into each of these positions, laying bare the emotional layers that each of these characters are dealing with. Edna’s memory problems are mirrored by an increasingly decrepit house that appears to get infinitely bigger, trapping its occupants in unremembered corridors brimming with boxes of unsorted clutter. Kay’s shame around not caring for her mother haunts her via nightmares of a distant relative, lying neglected in a mold infested cabin. Sam, who tries to reconnect with her beloved grandmother, struggles to recognise the person before her. It is the depiction of these very real issues that families affected by dementia go through, that make this film so chilling and heartbreaking. 

-       Reviewed by Harry Clark, mental health researcher