Every year, it seems as if we’re presented with at least one horror film that manages to define the year as a whole – think The Witch in 2016 or Hereditary in 2018. We’re about halfway through 2020 and Natalie Erika James’ RELIC is currently an early contender for the horror movie of the year.
The American-Australian directorial debut, produced by Jake Gyllenhaal and executive produced by the Russo brothers, offers a twist on haunted house fiction that’s equal parts chilling and tender.
When elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) disappears, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) travel to her country home to find her. After learning of her escalating dementia, Edna suddenly reappears, leaving Kay and Sam grappling with how to best take care of her. As Edna’s behavior becomes increasingly strange and dangerous, Kay and Sam start to suspect that there may be a sinister presence within the house.
It’s a simple premise, but RELIC excels in its focus. This is a film that knows exactly what it’s trying to say and how it wants to say it. Edna’s dementia serves as the bridge between the film’s emotional and supernatural themes and James is able to tie these threads effortlessly. Because of Edna’s condition, it makes sense why her daughter and granddaughter would be dismissive of the supernatural trappings that typically occur in your average haunted house story.
But make no mistake – RELIC has no desire to bombard its audience with clichés or cheap thrills. This is a patient affair, with the first two-thirds exploring the relationships amongst our three leads. The performances are solid across the board and help to ground the story, lending it emotional weight. Each character feels believable and that makes it all the easier to understand and care about them. The majority of the film takes place inside Edna’s house and much effort was put into ensuring that this home feels lived-in rather than a set, making its atmosphere all the more immersive.
Whenever RELIC threatens to resort to familiarity, it veers left. Viewers with a keen eye will locate details in the background that intend to unsettle rather than shock. The film’s muted color palette may be too somber for some, but it works in tandem with a sense of dread that is constantly lingering. Musically, we’re treated to a brooding ambient score, which can transition from a soft hum to something more cacophonous. It’s appropriate, even if it’s not terribly memorable.
To say that RELIC delivers with its payoff would be selling it short. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine another horror film in 2020 topping its third act. Closer in spirit to the work of Mike Flanagan than Ari Aster, it sticks the landing thanks to achieving a tricky tonal balance of scary and sentimental. By approaching its subject with sensitivity rather than an intention to exploit it, we’re left with a finale that’s deeply meaningful and hard to shake.
If there’s one area where RELIC leaves us less satisfied, it’s regarding its mythology. There are sequences and conversations implicating a deeper history with both the family and the house that don’t feel quite as fleshed out as the central narrative.
Ultimately, these minor gripes don’t hold RELIC back from feeling like a complete package. It’s a slow burn, but the payoff feels earned because the film never loses focus of the true horror at its core – watching a loved one fade away into someone you don’t recognize.
RELIC premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It will be released on Friday, July 10, 2020, in theaters as well as be available on Digital and VOD.