For horror to be truly effective it must deliver more than jump scares and darkened hallways. The terror needs to mean something; a manifestation of fear that taps into the subconscious. In previous years, The Witch bore the fright of religious superstition and paranoia, while The Babadook and Hereditary drew upon grief and family trauma. Like these precedents in the genre, Relic (the breakout debut from director and co-writer Natalie Erika James) evokes dread using a similar breed of all-too-human monster to an equally chilling degree.
When Kay (Emily Mortimer) is informed that her 80-something-year-old mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) has mysteriously disappeared, she travels to her rural home alongside her daughter (Bella Heathcote) to find out what happened. Though at first the missing matriarch is nowhere to be seen, she reappears one morning just as peculiarly as she vanished. With her mind deteriorating and a rot-like bruise covering her chest, Edna’s behaviour grows erratic and events in the house become increasingly malevolent.
Starting off at an easy pace, the first act introduces viewers to the mystery at hand: the grandmother’s absence, underlying family tensions and a since-demolished guest house on the property with dark secrets. It’s not until the missing woman reappears that events start to ramp up. With the lingering enigma holding the audience’s interest, the filmmaker gradually tightens the tension while twisting her feature into a sickeningly frightening finale that doesn’t pull any punches.
In addition to James’s pitch-perfect direction, a large part of the film’s success rests firmly on the shoulders of Nevin’s tour-de-force performance. Effortlessly switching from a sweet old lady to something less than savoury, the actress is the catalyst that sets every emotional and narrative beat in motion – it’s impossible to imagine anyone else who could fill this role as well.
As frightening as Relic becomes, the real terror lies within its heartbreaking familial aspects. This film’s monster is one that’s metaphorical, not supernatural. Though this may come as a disappointment to those looking for a more conventional horror, the result is immensely satisfying and surprisingly tender as a result. It’s inevitable that this feature will be compared to Jenifer Kent’s The Babadook. However, while both movies share similar themes and even happen to be the debut films of Australian women, Relic is a completely different kind of beast.
Relic is released nationwide on 30th October 2020.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2020 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for Relic here: