Let’s talk about prestige horror. Since the 2014 release of The Babadook, a large swath of horror has traded in over-the-top creature design, gore, and direct scares for a more subtle approach. Often times the films are steeped in allegorical plotlines. This has resulted in great critical acclaim, and equally great films such as The Witch, Get Out, and Midsommar. Relic, however, shows that this approach could grow tiresome.
Maybe it was the hype that set unfair expectations. Upon its January debut at Sundance, critics were already hailing Relic as the next great horror film, with many praising its message and austere filmmaking. Conspicuously absent was much mention of the film’s actual fear factor. It’s now clear to see why because while Relic is an admirable piece of work, it’s just not very notable as a horror flick.
Relic follows Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), who are summoned up to Kay’s mother Edna’s home where she has gone missing. What they find is a home in an alarming amount of disorder and rot. When Edna (Robyn Nevin) returns, all seems fine. But as the days go by, it becomes clear that she is losing her grip on her own mind, and she turns sinister as supernatural forces begin to reveal themselves.
The message of Relic is clear, and it is rock solid. Writer/director Natalie Erika James and co-writer Christian White weave a tight tale about what it’s like to watch as a loved one starts to lose themselves to the monster that is dementia. Mortimer and Heathcote play off opposite sides as the cynical one and the optimist. The conversations they have about Edna’s situation are real, heartbreaking, yet subtle. Of course, Nevin is the star of the show as Edna, a woman who is continually trying to hold on while a force beyond her control is trying to erase all that she is.
Many who have dealt with a family with dementia will likely find comfort or understand in Relic. And I don’t begrudge them that. It is a tactful, respectful evocation of a very difficult experience. The problem is that as a horror film, it doesn’t offer anything of note. Natalie Erika Jones tries to rely on atmosphere to convey a lot of the horror. However, it results in most of the scenes with characters wandering around the house as Brian Reitzell’s score blares ominous noises.
Things slowly (and I mean very slowly) begin to ramp up. All the meandering doesn’t create an atmosphere of dread. It creates an atmosphere of tedium that distracts between the potent dialogue exchanges between Kay, Sam, and Edna. For the most part, the marriage of horror to this story at all seems extraneous. The allegorical nature of Edna actually being stalked by/turning into a monster is clear. Is it necessary, though? Jones has a firm grasp on the ins and outs of dealing with dementia. Why not just make this a drama about that?
Or maybe you could go in the opposite direction. Really blow out the horror, because the final 5 minutes of Relic comes out much stronger than the rest of the picture. They ditch subtlety entirely, as they put the themes of the story on full display with great effects work in tow that leads to the film’s single most poignant moment. One that nearly brought a tear to my eye and made me wonder “why couldn’t the whole film be like this?”.
There’s a place for all types of horror. I don’t begrudge a movie like Relic for existing, I’m just exhausted. The prestige, overly subtle, and allegorical style of horror filmmaking has a grip on the throat of the entire genre. It’s time to be bold. Unafraid of not being taken seriously. This is a valid style of horror filmmaking, but it can’t be the only way. –James Preston Poole
Relic is now available to rent in Digital HD and showing at select Drive-Ins.