Dementia is a terrible thing. It’s awful for the sufferers who slowly lose themselves, and it’s difficult for the families who often have to deal with the effects. Whether said family chooses to tackle the care of the individual directly or with the help of a third party, the loss of that person, often a parent, can be devastating. While there have been other movies about dementia, few if any have tackled the subject in the way that writer/director Natalie Erika James has: through horror.
Relic stars Robyn Nevin as Edna, a spry octogenarian living alone in her long-time family home. When Edna disappears for three days, the police call in her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer), who arrives at the home with her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) to help with the search. Though Edna eventually returns apparently unscathed, she is not the same as when she left: physically she seems frail and mentally she’s not fully present and soon enough Kay and Sam find themselves fully consumed by Edna’s terrifying reality which manifests as an erosion of not only her mind and body but also her home.
The very idea to physically manifest the concept of dementia as a supernatural entity is nothing short of brilliant. The entity takes a hold on Edna and her life, slowly at first but as time passes, it grows exponentially, soon entrapping both her daughter and granddaughter who are doing everything they can to help her.
At first, Relic plays like any number of supernatural thrillers, at times borrowing from the haunted house trope (particularly notable in a scene where Sam has become trapped in a maze of hallways and rooms with walls that are slowly closing in on her), and possession films (notably Edna’s physical appearance which sees her deteriorate into a shell of a woman) but James and co-writer Christian White incorporate these in smart ways that play into their larger theme.
And that theme of all-consuming loss becomes more apparent as the movie progresses. Edna’s shift from lucidity to chaos, her sudden loss of bodily function, her memory loss and her sudden attachment to old family stories; these could all simply be part of the horror movie trope but there’s something about the performances, particularly from Mortimer and Nevin, that ground the film in reality even when the images are clearly steeped in the supernatural.
While Relic can be watched and is very effective as a creepy horror movie (with some excellent practical effects!) about a woman who wonders off into the woods and returns with a nefarious spirit that begins to consumer her, her home and her family, the theme of loss at the core of James’ story feels more succinct and powerful here than usual. While the performances certainly play a part, there’s also the movie’s finale which brings three generations of women together in a powerful scene that is both haunting and emotionally resonant.