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RELIC *****

Directed by Natalie Erika James.

Starring Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote, Robyn Nevin.

Horror, Australia, 89 minutes.

 

Released in the UK in cinemas and On Demand from 30th October

 

RELIC finally arrives in the UK on a wave of critical praise that horror films used to struggle to rarely achieve. Making her debut as writer and director, Natalie Erika James has crafted the kind of horror that is all too rare in that it manages to strike an emotional chord that will resonate with many who will identify with this story that expertly mixes the supernatural and the all too real horrors of family secrets and aging.

 

After her mother Edna has been reported missing, Kay and her daughter Sam are soon relieved when she suddenly re-appears, although with no explanation or recollection of where she has been. Advised to stay on in her house, much to Sam’s pleasure and Kay’s annoyance, they soon come to realise that a malevolent presence and not the usual issues brought on by old age may be behind Edna’s increasingly erratic behaviour. As Sam and Kay try to reconnect with Edna in their own way, they each uncover unknown and troubling hints about their family history as the grandmother seems to be keeping secrets of her own.

 

The patient storytelling employed here is subtle yet highly engrossing. As Kay, Emily Mortimer provides one of her strongest performances yet as does Bella Heathcote playing her daughter. Their characters are strongly written, feeling realistic and their relationship is one of the more naturalistic ones seen on screen for some time. Their generational gap providing differences in opinion, not just on how to care for Edna but for themselves provides shades of back story and shared history in a single exchange of dialogue that a lesser talent could struggle to convey with reams of expository dialogue. This subtlety runs throughout the film using haunting imagery throughout that can be either sinister in its seemingly normal nature or its more nightmarish aspects which start to appear more with more regularity as the story unfolds.

 

The usual Australian cinematic setting of the sun-baked outback or dusty small towns is replaced here by chilly, damp looking forests straight out of a Gothic horror, lurking in the background behind Edna’s spacious yet cold household. This difference in visual approach is complimented by its creepy and atmospheric sound design; bumps heard behind the walls at night, as well as shifting furniture in other rooms, take on an increasingly terrifying significance as the film leads its audience to a climax that is creepy and claustrophobic inducing a sense of panic in the viewer that this reviewer for one has not felt or experienced in far too long.

 

A more understated film than the majority of horror films released just now it is also one of the most empathetic, particularly for those in the audience who have had to deal with the experience of having to care for a loved one in their final years. RELIC does not have to explain away the issue of dementia here as an event triggered by some supernatural event or trauma. Instead it manages to walk a tricky balancing act of presenting it alongside its more fantastical elements, combing it into something that could be looked at literally and metaphorically on both levels simultaneously.

 

Like Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK this is yet another great piece of debut horror from the other end of the world, although it does not need to be presented with such a signifier. This is just great storytelling on every level that combines an ever-escalating sense of dread with one of the most powerful and quietly emotional closing scenes in years. After its long-awaited release, we can finally see that its hype is justified and look forward to what Natalie Erika James will terrify us with next.

 

Iain MacLeod.

 

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