We are currently witnessing something staggering and horrific: COVID-19 and its ravaging of nursing homes. In the U.S., it has accounted for 43% of deaths linked to the virus; in Canada, 81%; in Britain, the total could hit more than half. “There were horror stories about elderly people being found dead in their homes well after the fact – neglected and forgotten, their children in distant towns, their bodies starting to deteriorate. I could think of nothing more heartbreaking,” recounts Relic’s writer-director, Natalie Erika James. This statement comes from an experience she had visiting her grandmother’s town, a place very different now to what she remembers from her youth. This builds part of the story of her feature debut. But mainly, it’s a film built out of guilt: the guilt of not visiting her grandmother before it was too late, before disease took complete control of her. That’s a horror story on its own and one that feels especially hard-hitting now. There’s a darkness in Relic, an insidious presence that seems to follow its elderly, Edna (Robyn Nevin). But this is no demon of a spiritual kind. This isn’t a traditional possession or haunted house film. The horror presented in James’s Sundance hit is a mirror into Edna’s mental and physical fight against a disease that will, sadly, win.
The film follows three generations of women. After Edna is reported missing by a neighbor, her daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer), and granddaughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), travel to their family’s decaying ancestral home in search of her. When they arrive she’s nowhere to be found and a police investigation ensues. The house is frightening as mysterious thuds are heard and there seems to be something moving behind its walls. James and co-writer, Christian White, know how to create an uneasy and suspenseful atmosphere, one where you get the sense that something could jump out at you at any moment. The film carries the fear you get when you think something is hiding under your bed or lingering in darkened corners or when you have to run up the stairs from your basement because you feel there’s something behind you. All three women are constantly running or hiding from something, but what they’re hiding from isn’t covered by a sheet with holes for eyes: it’s dementia, a disease that’s been in their family for generations. When Edna returns, seemingly not remembering where she was, symptoms of her illness reveal themselves bit by bit.
Memory loss, disorientation, mood swings, lack of self-care, behavioral issues, changes in personality, and eventual loss of bodily functions are all effects of Alzheimer’s disease, all seen in Edna, and events of the film mirror her mental and physical deterioration. Alzheimer’s can be inherited and a rare form of frontotemporal dementia similar to AD can be passed from generation to generation. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, “About 10-15 [percent] of people with FTD have a very strong family history of the condition. This means having three or more relatives with FTD across at least two generations.” Kay frequently has nightmares of an old cabin with a unique glass window on its front door. The cabin has been torn down, but the window was fitted into the door of her mother’s home. This relic represents a dark past, one that saw death. Glass absorbs energy and the window carries the darkness of dementia that has hit other members of their family before Edna. The window is used like a conduit manifesting the disease into something spiritual or demonic that adds to its horror elements, but more importantly, its emotional weight.
Each actress must carry that weight for which they all excel and help the film to be that much more affecting. Especially Nevin, who must portray Edna in grief and pain: grief over who she once was and in pain from what’s now taking over her body. She’s deteriorating and it’s haunting her as much as it’s haunting Kay and Sam. Mortimer hits the audience hard as she, as Kay, gives the audience an insight into the emotions that come with deciding to take the next step and move her mother into a nursing home – something that seems more foreboding now. Heathcote, on the other hand, has the most frightening scenes to conquer as Sam experiences her grandmother’s symptoms operating from without most intensely. Each of them provides award-worthy performances that culminate into a final act that’s nail-biting and ends on a note of sadness and acceptance.
The film’s cast, its carefully crafted script, sullen atmosphere, and spine-chilling sound design create a film that uses the horror space to emphasize dementia symptoms and its effects on a vulnerable population and their families, making Relic one of the most emotional and frightening films of the genre yet.
Relic will be available through VOD on July 10.
Sara Clements has been a freelance film/TV writer since 2017. She’s from Canada and holds a degree in journalism. She has written for both print and online and is an editor for Next Best Picture. She likes to pressure everyone into watching Paddington. You can find her on Twitter at @mildredsfierce