Relic review – a powerful allegory for dementia

Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote star in Relic, an Australian psychological horror about strained intergenerational relationships.

The film follows Kay (Emily Mortimer), who returns to her childhood home to investigate the sudden disappearance of her elderly mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin). Kay’s daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), joins her in the search. The two venture out into Melbourne woodland and manage to break into Edna’s rural house, only to find a rotten fruit bowl and no sign of Edna. 

Bella Heathcote in Relic
Courtesy of Signature Entertainment

The house is in a state of neglect, with black mould creeping up the walls and clutter touching the ceilings in most of the bedrooms. Post-it notes signalling Edna’s mental deterioration adorn the surfaces. Some read simple instructions like “take pills” while others reveal more sinister warnings like “don’t follow it”. Kay soon begins to have nightmares of a decrepit cabin with only a decayed human body inside. 

After a few days, Edna stumbles into the house, hair matted, feet muddy and displaying a dark bruise on her chest – not unlike the black mould that seems to have infected the house. Edna is otherwise unharmed and insists that she is still capable of living alone. Kay and Sam, however, are suspicious and worried enough to decide to stay longer and keep an eye on her.  

Natalie Erika James (in her directorial debut) deftly blends well-worn horror tropes with familial strife. In the footsteps of Ari Aster’s Hereditary, the interactions between James’ central characters are infused with palpable tension. Each conversation, usually consisting of just a few lines, highlights the chasms in their relationships. Kay disparages her daughter’s choice to pass over university in favour of bar work, while Edna expresses anger at her own daughter’s estrangement. Charlie Sarroff’s camera work, with shots taken through windows and behind corners, gives the impression that we are peering into family drama that we have no business seeing. Sarroff positions us as voyeurs witnessing the fracturing and subsequent colliding of disparate family members. 

Courtesy of Signature Entertainment

As Edna’s behaviour grows stranger in the film’s second half, the atmosphere intensifies. She mutters fervent words of paranoia to herself, later displaying violent outbursts towards her daughter and granddaughter. All the while, the house grows more dilapidated. It groans and moans while the black mould continues to sprawl across its walls. The house is creepy, claustrophobic and encircling, rife with passageways that lead to nowhere, pushing its inhabitants to question reality. James cleverly sets Edna’s mental deterioration against the backdrop of a supernaturally decaying house. What appears to be some kind of horrifying poltergeist distorting the building thus becomes a profound allegory for the destructive power of dementia and its impact on a family. 

Relic is a slow burn but by the final act, it hammers home the harrowing themes it seeks to explore. It is a sharp and powerful exploration of generational dysfunction as a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter are brought together by the collective horror of dementia. A very impressive debut from Natalie Erika James.

Relic releases in cinemas and on digital October 30th.

Megan Whitehouse

Megan is a recent graduate of the University of Birmingham who is staving off post-graduation anxiety by watching copious amounts of films. She previously contributed to The National Student as well as her university paper, Redbrick. She can be contacted at: meganwhitehouse0@gmail.com