More distinctly than any other genre, horror transitions through a cycle of change every decade or so. From the early monster movies of the late 1920s and 30s, or to the inception of the slasher sub-genre in the late ’70s and, later, to the zombie apocalypse in the infancy of the 21st century. In a reflection of the turmoil of our times, it appears that, as of now, horror is defined by stories that extract distinctly humanistic fears; one’s diseasing our bloodline or manifesting from mental struggle. Such can be seen across contemporary horror. In The Babadook’s personification of depression and anxiety, Hereditary’s suggestion of an unavoidable illness that runs in the bloodline or Raw’s similar themes, reflecting an inescapable tormented future.
Relic, in its similarly bleak, dreary style, makes no secret in its desires to be held among the esteemed aforementioned horror films but makes its case with limp conviction.
Here, the mental monster is dementia, manifesting as dirty, blackened rot, likened to damp as it spreads around the house and mind of grandmother Edna (Robyn Nevin), whose disappearance is, at first, deeply unsettling. Mother and daughter duo Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote) rush to their former family home to assist the police’s search, quickly finding her pottering around the wooded grounds and home itself.
The tension brews nicely, shifting slowly gear-by-gear with the help of some crafty set design and special effects. For a while, it’s a shadowy haunted house horror, cleverly playing on the doubts of one’s own mind and the hazy, shifting figures lurking in the background of the scene. Though, it’s a kettle that steams and never boils, cranking up a ramp that concludes in no satisfying view or climax. Moreso, the film seems overly preoccupied with translating the central dementia metaphor, one which was abundantly clear from the start.
In its deconstruction of the illness, it touches upon some heartbreaking revelations, exposing these truths in several inventive ways. Manifesting as a crawling parasite, leaping off the moulded walls to invade the skin and body, writer/director Natalie Erika James does well to build a creeping atmosphere of dread, but then leaves it to fall stagnant. As characters explore the depths of the house’s eternal corridors, they seem to become bored in their own fright, walking toward an unknown and ultimately uneventful conclusion.
Panicked by the decreasing pace, Relic falls back on genre conventions and shortcuts, killing time with unexplained, inexplicable scenes that add little sustenance to the climactic bite. Though the leading trio of Heathcote, Mortimer and Nevin do their utmost to breath enthusiasm into the story, it quickly deflates under its own heavy-handed metaphor.
The film presents an accurate representation of dementia as a rotting, blackened manifestation but does so sufficiently in the opening minutes, offering little more in the remainder of its runtime. With a past filmography filled with short-film success, director Natalie Erika James’s first feature film feels like a fantastic core premise stretched too thin. This is, in part, a heartbreaking meditation into the loss of identity, but is hampered by an empty mid-section, sandwiched between an excellent introduction and a dark and touching finale.