Released: 10th July
Seen: 2nd August
One of the great things about the horror genre, indeed the thing that’s probably kept it thriving for so many years, is that horror is a fantastic way to tell a story through metaphor. So many of the greatest horror films of all time have been metaphorical tales decrying certain things in culture. They Live is an anti-Reagan era film, Get Out was calling out liberals who use performative wokeness while still engaging in systemic racism, every zombie movie made since Romero has been a metaphor for something. It’s a great genre to work in when dealing with a major topic… the catch is you’re still a horror movie and you still need to scare the audience at some point.
Relic tells the tale of Edna (Robyn Nevin), an elderly woman who goes missing one day. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Belle Heathcote) come to Edna’s remote family home to try and help find her, but oddly she reappears as suddenly as she vanished except she comes back in a very different state than they remember. She doesn’t seem to remember things, spaces off at strange moments and has violent outbursts. All the while, the house around them gets darker and mouldier, almost like the house is a metaphor for the inside of Edna’s brain and how dark, confusing and lifeless it is.
The impossible to escape metaphor the entire film relies on is dementia. The haunting horror that creeps through this film is the dementia that’s overwhelming Edna and in this movie’s case the dementia manifests as a demonic possession of the grandmother. On paper, this is a fantastic way to handle this subject. Dementia seems to come on suddenly, changes personality, almost makes the person who has it into someone completely different which is just like a demonic possession so it’s a great metaphor to work with… on paper. In practice this film really does kind of hold back, to its detriment.
Relic is what we would call a ‘slow burn horror’ where everything slowly ratchets up to a shocking climax. Think of films like Hereditary or Midsommar, both of which are relatively slow to begin with and take a while to build up, but by the time we get to the last 20 minutes everything has gone off the rails and everyone has lost their damn minds. Well, to call Relic a slow burn is a problem because that phrase implies forward momentum and a heat source and for the first hour of this film, there’s almost none of that.
For the first hour of the film, it’s practically silent and almost nothing happens. There’s certainly some unnerving imagery and the acting is genuinely impressive but it takes so long for things to actually start resembling a horror movie. Honestly, it’s kind of hard to actually pay attention during the beginning, there’s so little going on that it’s easy to end up looking away from the screen, maybe reach for the phone or just verge on taking a nap. It takes far too long for the moment when we realise that something is very wrong with Grandma, and by that point in the film it wouldn’t shock me if people turned it off and went to try something else.
The sad thing is that when we get to the final act of the movie, the big climax we’ve spent so long building to is interesting and has moments of horror, but it always feels like it’s pulling back and not worth the build up… and there wasn’t that much build up, if we’re being honest. Some of the ideas are interesting, like a scene where the grandaughter is in a hallway that seems to shrink from both ends. That’s a clever visual metaphor that almost works… and then she just punches through some mouldy dry wall and then there goes any actual tension because now I know just how easy it is to break out of a room.
Relic tries, it really does and maybe if you’re in the exact right frame of mind you’ll get a few jumps out of this one. Even though the acting is good and the set design is interesting, the film itself just isn’t engaging or scary. You can certainly see a large amount of talent went into this, I’m interesting in seeing what the director does next because you can see that there’s something here, there’s just not enough of it.