Relic: Horror’s Natural Habitat

Relic: Horror’s Natural Habitat

Merging classic horror with an allegory of dementia, Relic is the debut feature from Natalie Erika James. Three generations of women converge on one increasingly dilapidated house, whose floor-plan quickly becomes as slippery as the matriarch’s grip on reality.  

In a sprawling semi-rural property, unmistakably Australian for those familiar with that antipodean landscape and layout, Edna is disintegrating. Her house is too big; too loud and too quiet at once. In her eighties, she’s physically fit – her mind, though, is slipping. After the neighbours stop checking on her, the local police realise that Edna’s been MIA for a few days now. They telephone her daughter Kay: time to come home. 

Kay arrives with her own daughter Sam, twenty-something and almost pleased to have something to do. She and Kay bicker about careers (‘Is your boss ok with you taking time off?’) but the pair can’t sustain much tension; they’re going to need each other more than ever over the next couple of weeks. After staying in the Edna-less house for a night or two, half-searching and half-waiting for her to return, Kay wakes one morning to the eerie whistle of an old-fashioned kettle on the stove. Walking into the kitchen, she finds her mother – and while Edna seems unhurt, she can’t be cajoled into explaining where she’s been.  

The real question, of course, is whether she knows herself. Edna’s house is covered in post-it notes – reminders to ‘take pills’ near the packets by the bed, or ‘set the alarm’ by the door, are some of our first clues that she’s losing her memory. Another note, ‘don’t follow it’, catapults us into the fear which goes hand in hand with disorientation; almost immediately, we’re dealing with something more sinister than leaving the lights on. Relic plunges into the no-man’s-land of dementia: here, what you believe is what you experience.  

Fear of falling 

 Losing your mind is frightening. At least, I imagine it must be – and Relic does an exquisite-excruciating job of illustrating that terror of slipping. Think how stomach-churning it would be not to recognise the people in your house. To get lost in your own home, or find things in places you don’t remember putting them. To hear noises, and find no explanation in your bank of memories for where they might be coming from.  

How about encountering family members halfway through a conversation about you, which you have no memory of contributing to – could that feel like anything but conspiracy? Betrayal? The cruel loop of forgetting means not remembering not remembering, at least until someone (maybe your concerned daughter) questions you directly. Only then does the looming void of icy absence present itself. Isn’t that, perhaps, what all fear boils down to? 

Certainly, horror films lean on suspense. Think of even the schlockiest B movie – jump cuts, a figure looming behind a character just out of sight, low lighting obscuring a room’s corners. Until a monster is literally on top of you, horror-film-tension relies on our imagining it. What does it look like? Where is it hiding? How will it hurt me? Relic’s central conceit is one of those rare ideas, so intuitively true that you can’t believe it isn’t already a trope. If horror has a natural habitat, it’s a state of not knowing; that state is dementia.  

Jump cut  jitters

 Back in the farmhouse, Edna’s loosening grip on reality comes in waves. Sometimes she’s lucid; one night, she opens a drawer in her dressing table and pulls out a ring. Explaining that it doesn’t fit any more, she gives it to her granddaughter Sam – it’s a touching moment, and a gesture made by someone who understands the young woman in front of her. Who she is, what their relationship is based on, how generations rise like tides and what might lie ahead.  

Soon afterwards, Sam discovers Edna dancing herself round the sitting room, humming along to songs from another time; fading and burgeoning generations encounter each other on two planes at once.

Flung from sentimental silliness to somewhere she doesn’t recognise, Edna loses her footing

Flung from sentimental silliness to somewhere she doesn’t recognise, Edna loses her footing. Seeing her ring on Sam’s finger, she flies into a rage – her granddaughter has been going through her things! Stealing from her. Wrenching the jewellery from the girl’s hand, Edna hurts Sam. For the first time, the young woman sees her grandmother as something other than fragile and benevolent; I smell a turning point, and another smart horror-trope rejig. 

The clue’s in the name

If fear is about not-knowing, the horror genre is also very keen indeed on madness – abstract or specific as the case may be. In fact, in trying to think of creepy films for some writerly compare-and-contrast, I realised I couldn’t think of one that doesn’t incorporate that implicit threat of Crazy.

Debates about the ethics of vilifying mental illness aside, I invite you to run through the first scary movies that spring to mind. The Shining is an easy one – literally a two-hour run through Jack’s mental deterioration. How about Silence of the Lamb’s ‘it puts the lotion in the basket’? Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (the clue’s in the name)? 

Of course, dementia is in a different category (both medically and culturally speaking) to psychopathy or psychosis, those two most misunderstood and widely stigmatised of mental illnesses. Nonetheless, Edna’s deterioration makes her unpredictable; that makes her frightening, a trope we’re all well acquainted with per the Horror Hall of Fame list above. How to extrapolate? Well, Relic sees Edna’s emotional state echoed in the house itself. As Kay and Sam’s noble plans for intervention begin to unravel, the walls start closing in. 

House of Horrors

Kay’s visit is at least partly motivated by guilt; she feels, we intuit, that she has neglected her mother in her old age and increasing frailty. Relic hinges on that subjectivity colouring reality, environment becoming enmeshed with emotion; as such, Edna’s house – presumably once Kay’s home, too – reflects its fraught atmosphere. Not a bad metaphor for end-of-life care, as metaphors go: options are evaporating (we can’t leave her!), and Edna’s counter-intuitive claustrophobia begins to rub off of her daughter and granddaughter.  

Unexplained banging, dragging sounds. Piles of junk. Here is Edna’s mental state made manifest – unsettling, untidy, uncanny. Deterioration is heritable, and that goes for Edna herself too. One night, Kay tells Sam the story of her great granddad – Edna’s father, who retreated to an outhouse on the property.  Quite what happened to him is left unsaid; it’s implied, though, that he lost his mind much as Edna’s beginning to. ‘I think he just didn’t get the care he needed’, says Kay – charitable, for someone who is haunted by his spectre. A blackened body, rotting or burnt, keeps pushing its way into her dreams – will she leave her mother to the same unbearably lonely fate? Is she naive to believe she has a choice? 

One night, Sam goes banging around the house. Squinting into an ill-lit corner, she sees a corridor where wall should be; shoving boxes and laundry baskets out of the way, Sam walks into a part of the building she’s never seen. The black mould, seeping into the home like an affliction, has taken root here in earnest. There are no lights except Sam’s phone torch; its cold beam is disorientating, conjuring exaggerated shadows and accentuating blind spots. The corridor forks, Sam goes left and spooks. ‘Fuck this’, time to head back – but the way she came in is gone. Panic. 

Into the void

Meanwhile, upstairs, Sam’s mother and grandmother aren’t faring much better. Kay’s giving her mum a bath when she gets locked out of the bathroom. Through the pane of glass above the door, she can see the tub overflowing.

She can see her mother picking a wound on her chest, first absentmindedly and then with chilling determination. The gloves are off, the last footholds kicked away, the veil between reality and feeling disintegrated.  From her parallel-universe labyrinth, Sam is quite literally in Edna’s world now – and Kay is at her mercy. 

No spoilers; just roaring soundscapes, and horrible silence. Relic engages fears hardwired into all of us – decay, abandonment, the unknown, death. Much has been written about the film’s final scene, but there’s no way of describing it without ruining the film’s crescendo; suffice to say, it’s quieter than one might imagine. In the end, and for all of us, is silence. 

Relic is available to watch now on digital platforms.

Rampa  They Will Be