Prior to watching Natalie Erika James’ Relic, I’d read constant comparisons to Hereditary and The Babadook. The former has too strong a grasp on literal malevolence to align in any way with James’ debut feature, but The Babadook certainly shares a great deal with this Australian-made indie-horror, given both are rooted in German expressionism and rely almost entirely on subtext.
Where The Babadook was a film-length metaphor for soul-destroying grief, Relic deals more in the anticipation of that grief and the monster of time, a prescient terror that opens the 90-minute piece to explore fear, loneliness, neglect and aging. Dementia sits at the centre of all these themes, prismatic in its reflection of the real horrors that exist within a rural home in Victoria, Australia.
That home, relatively isolated and built from the bones of a nearby cabin, belongs to 85-year-old Edna (Robyn Nevin), whose odd behaviour precedes her sudden disappearance. Her absence is what brings daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) back to the home to help look for the matriarch, both remorseful over their recent neglect of the aging woman.
The script, co-written by Christian White, relies a bit too heavily on atmosphere, demanding incredible patience from the viewer as a sense of unease is slowly spread through the house by James’ immaculate direction. A real sense of impending doom grows as fast as the mysterious moss-like black mold that festers up and down the walls of the house, but Relic only teases how this could implode at any second.
Kay’s constant nightmares, disturbing post-it notes, a disconcerting rumbling in the walls, and an ominous call-back to the dark history bubbling inside the aforementioned cabin, where her great grandfather died alone, are all that Relic gives us until Edna’s sudden reappearance. Even after her return, James is perfectly comfortable giving the story enough room to breathe so she can maximise the poignant ending.
This may annoy some viewers, testing patience while James confidently sets the oppressive atmosphere which stretches and resizes Edna’s home into a beastly maze of uncertainty and fear. Meanwhile, the black mold continues to take hold of the situation, spreading throughout the house’ foundations as much as on Edna’s actual skin.
There is a tendency to overindulge in the metaphor, with many plot developments only there to serve the allegory. There’s no explanation for much else, and mystery lingers long after the credits roll. But Relic is still a rewarding 90 minutes, potent in its tableaux of time as the most terrifying of all ghosts. More specifically, that’s wasted time; time not spent with loved ones and wasted without meaning – the evil of neglect and regret.
If Relic was any longer than its modest runtime, the allegory would have run thing. There’s only so much slow-build an audience could take, but James’ debut feature benefits from its brevity and allows the script to wrap its purpose neatly before things get out of hand.
While it’s definitely not for everyone, Relic is surely one of the more intriguing and beautifully conceived supernatural horror-dramas to be released in the past few years.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Relic is now streaming on Stan.