Almost every year you anticipate some curious shape of psychological horror to emerge from the BFI London Film Festival, in a positive sense, and 2020’s honour goes to Natalie Erika James’ Relic. Although it doesn’t lurk in the disturbing realms of the likes of Hereditary, this was a bonus for me as James’ film took me to places in an inventive, tender way that I didn’t at all expect.
As a quick outline, Relic sees Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) head back to their family home after failing to contact their Mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), for more than a few days. Concerned, Kay does the rounds in her local community, asking the Police and neighbours if they’d seen her Mother but without much luck. While the clues seem to suggest everything is ‘as it should be’ in the house, they search the woods and suffer restless nights unable to track her down. However, one morning she reappears in the kitchen, as if nothing has happened, but undeniably looks dishevelled and distant.
In the early stages, I expected this film to be in the vicinity of M Night Shyamalan’s enjoyable The Visit, with crazy grandparents and surreal happenings but this is nothing like it, with a much deeper and perceptive journey. I’ve always felt, and many of us know, that psychological horror is best positioned when dealing with real-life issues, with allegories subtly and smartly dispersed throughout the narrative, and Relic hits this mark. While the overall study is a loved one dealing the early stages of dementia, it also delves into personal guilt and fears, alongside the worry that lingers within you as you get older, concerned with not only losing your memories but all the branches of your life that have grown tall along the way.
It’s remarkable to think this is Natalie Erika James’ directorial feature debut as it’s assured and balanced throughout, with a perfect running time of 89 minutes. Charlie Sarroff’s wonderfully atmospheric cinematography complements each aspect of the world that James builds right from the start. We see twinkling Christmas lights, reflections of uncertainty through over-flowing bath water and a darkness through images and mysterious shapes but it also contains a pulse, implying there’s another life here, outside of the one we’re watching. There are also indications of something insidious in the shadows, including new locks added by Edna, mouldy, damp walls and a trick in the corner of your eye. I felt essences of the opening of Alien, when we’re just drifting around the ship, and eventual nods to The Shining, as there’s something supernatural at play and when accompanied by Brian Reitzell‘s score that only enhances the low-level dread, it’s all quite mesmerising.
A film like Relic must also be about the performances to make it credible. This is where Emily Mortimer is incredibly welcomed as Edna’s daughter Kay, a woman who just wants to look after her Mother but is also desperate to work out how to do it fairly and with kindness. Mortimer is excellent at either being in control or vulnerable as an actor, and here she tries in vain to manage the situation but cannot. Her natural ability for human-connection shines through, you sense her real fear that’s not only over the situation she finds herself in but also the thought this might also happen to her one day. These elements are full of horror, but also realistically poignant.
As well as Mortimer, Bella Heathcote’s Sam is an essential part to everything because in the early days, she doesn’t understand why her Mum is being so forceful about everything she wants to do for her Grandmother but, trust me, overtime, you’ll see why as well. And then there’s Robyn Nevin as Mother and Grandmother Edna, and the woman this entire film is about. She’s a wonder in each aspect, from being genuinely scary, to susceptible and mostly unpredictable with all the right poise.
For me, Relic adds another dimension to psychological horror because of where it goes with the finale, this cannot be spoiled because it has to be experienced, full of nuance and compassion like you might not have felt before, considering the situation, this is one of those films with an ending that will definitely get you talking, much like another great 2013 horror. I found it all both terrifying and captivating.