Monday, February 22, 2021

Not Fade Away

Film: Relic
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on the new portable.

There are some hard truths when it comes to films. When we talk about great horror movies, for instance, the classics of the mid-‘80s and before (and perhaps well into the ‘90s) come from men, generally speaking. That’s not shocking when you consider that most movies of that era were directed by men. But these days, a lot of the more interesting and vital work in the horror genre is being done by women. In fact, if you remove white men from the horror genre right now, you’re not losing a great deal with the exception of Leigh Whannell. I’m sure I’m forgetting someone—use the comments for that.

Anyway, that brings me to Relic, which is the feature-length debut of director Natalie Erika James. I’d heard good things about Relic and was interested to see it. This is a pared-down film, one that works well as a directorial debut because of the scope. James’s work is ambitious in the sense of what she wants to convey with the story, but is limited in the places where she can limit it without damaging that story. There are only a handful of characters here, for instance, and really only three we’re going to spend a lot of time with. While we’re going to move around a bit, most of what we’re going to do is stay put in a single (admittedly disturbingly convoluted) house. Relic runs about 90 minutes and dismisses a lot of frills. It sticks to the story, the characters, and the meaning, and because of that, it works pretty well.

Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing from her house. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcoate) travel to her secluded home to help look for her. Her house is locked from the inside, and there is evidence of a disturbing black mold growing in parts of the house. There are signs that Edna is slipping mentally; primarily this comes in the form of handwritten Post-It notes around the house. Kay and Sam spend a difficult time in the house, plagued by nightmares, spreading mold, and strange noises from inside the walls.

Eventually, Edna shows up again, unaware that she was missing. She appears mentally and physically whole, aside from a large black bruise in the middle of her chest. This bruise looks suspiciously like the mold growing in the house. But Edna is clearly fading. Kay considers putting her in a nursing home. Meanwhile, she has a tender moment or two with granddaughter Sam, but also suddenly turns on her. More and more, Edna’s actions are incomprehensible. Kay finds her behind the house tearing photos out of the family album and eating them, and then burying the album. I’ll stop here. What follows is really the point of the movie, and probably needs to be under a spoiler tag.

* * * BUT WHAT IS THE RELIC? * * *

It’s not hard to see Relic as a sort of allegory about dealing with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, it’s hard not to see it that way. If someone told me Natalie Erika James and/or her co-writer Christian White had dealt with either of those conditions in their families, I would not be remotely shocked. The rot that infests the house is an outward manifestation of the rot going on in Edna’s mind. Her own physical deterioration mirrors the same process.

Much of the third act involves Sam being lost behind the walls of the house. These hidden corridors appear to loop around themselves, and even when she back tracks, she can’t find her way out. They are also filled with the same mold and with piles and piles of junk. These hidden corridors are, metaphorically, Edna’s deteriorating mind. Ultimately, the complete physical deterioration of Edna and the possibility that the same might happen to Kay may mean that Kay will go through this same terrible degradation.

What’s the relic? Possibly this terrible genetic curse handed down from generation to generation. At least that’s my read.

* * * SO THAT’S THE RELIC * * *

This is a story that could have been (and has been) told in a much more straightforward way, assuming my read on the deeper meaning is correct (and, honestly, I can’t see how it’s not). So why make this as a horror movie? Because there are some real horror moments here—some ugly and gruesome moments. The true horror of what’s happening to Edna needs to for the ultimate impact.

This is a smart movie. It’s a little dark in places, but it’s a movie like Get Out that seems far too mature for a first-time director. I’m hoping we see great things out of Natalie Erika James, because based on this, she’s got some chops.

Why to watch Relic: A solid debut from a director I hope gets more work.
Why not to watch: It’s a little dark (physically, not emotionally) in places.


  1. I have heard good things about this film as I'm always in horror films that are directed by women and with their perspective as Raw was a great example of that.

    1. In my experience, women directing horror movies are a lot more likely to want to go deeper than just gore and gross out.