“Relic” is an exemplary entry in the New Horror canon, where psychology and atmosphere count for as much as shocks, where the inner wounds of women often take startling external form, and where less is more until the time comes for more to be more.
Directed by Natalie Erika James from a screenplay co-written with Christian White, the film is a three-hander that gradually adds layers of meat to its bare-bones story line. There’s a grandmother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), whose disappearance from the creaky old family home brings her middle-aged daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer), and grown granddaughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), in from the city for a worried investigation. The older woman soon returns but does not seem quite herself. Is it time to get Gran into assisted living or are there more malevolent forces at work?
“Relic” sticks with these three and stays in the house, building a slow, steady web of dread. There’s a backstory, but we’re meant to intuit it, in part through flashes hinting at an ugly family history but more through the women’s tense, combative dynamic. Edna, the matriarch, is a tough customer, as is the coolly confident granddaughter — it’s Kay, the mother-daughter in the middle, who’s timid and self-conscious, cowed by the forcefulness of the generations flanking her. The air of fretful concern Mortimer often brings to a performance is here squeezed until Kay is surging toward panic.
The first two-thirds of “Relic” are a study in building and maintaining a world of cinematic disquiet. The film’s secret star, after director James, is sound designer Robert Mackenzie, who invests every whisper and bump with sinister intent — even someone casually brushing their teeth sounds evil here. The effect is to make whatever is possessing the house and/or grandma seem to infect the film as well.
The special effects come out in the final third in ways that are both creatively disgusting and suggestive of a traumatized dream logic. True to its title, “Relic” hints that family bones and family sins lodge deep in the foundations, continually repressed and waiting to resurface, affecting every generation of women in turn. The movie is a steady, frightening depiction of a baton of awful knowledge being passed.
Directed by Natalie Erika James. Written by James, and Christian White. Starring Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote, Robyn Nevin. Available on digital/VOD. 89 minutes. R (some horror violence/disturbing images, language).