One of cinemas most misunderstood genres is horror. Many people miss the point of why the horror genre is so powerful. Plenty of viewers love the feeling of being scared, but the misconception is that gore and blood is the key to effective scares. In truth, a creepy mood, a build up of tension and a rich narrative is the key. Sadly, modern films have trained modern audiences to expect blood and guts, resulting in actually effective horror films being branded ‘boring’. Horror is powerful enough to address emotional, psychological and societal fears, so it’s frustrating when films just substitute carefully crafted stories for senseless violence. Natalie Erika James’ Relic (2020) thankfully does it right.
Set in the surrounding countryside of Melbourne Australia, Relic centres on Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote). The pair come by to visit Kay’s mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), but she appears to be missing. Also, the house is empty and the walls are covered with ominous black mould. Sam and Kay search the woods and notifying the local police, only to find Edna has returned to the house with no memory of where she went. Kay and Sam are deeply concerned and want to take care of Edna, but her crippling dementia is making it difficult. This proves to be dangerous and depressing as Edna violently resists help. Additionally, the house appears to be haunted and warped by all of this, resulting in a truly unnerving experience.
While there are signifiers tied to horror like ghosts and zombies, tension can be built long before any scares actually occur. This can be achieved with clever camerawork, deliberate composition and effective use of colour and light. Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Shining (1980) and The Conjuring (2013) are prime examples of films using artfully constructed cinematography to create a haunting tone. Director Natalie Erika James and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff add to that proud tradition with their work here, delivering visuals which are bleak yet beautiful. There could be nothing happening at all, yet every subtle movement and every simple edit makes you squirm in fear. Don’t watch this on a bright or sunny day, as it demands to be experienced in the darkest theatre room available.
With that in mind, Erika James wants the audience to give their undivided attention, as every single moment of significance takes a wonderfully minimalist approach. During the film’s extensive build up, Erika James doesn’t throw in unnecessary jump scares or piercing music stings. The significant scares are far more subtle, ranging from things moving ever so slightly to the uncomfortably misplaced shadows. While these seem incidental, Erika James cleverly makes these moments the building blocks for the narrative and thematic meaning. It’s a genius tactic to create tension and it makes for unique storytelling. Just be aware that the level of focus required from the viewer is such that if you blink you’ll miss something important.
Similarly, the depths of the characters are just as silently complex. Given how dramatically heavy the events are, these people are naturally pretty speechless. They don’t have much to say, nor should they have anything to say. This isn’t a Hollywood film where every character needs to have the last word or needs to explain their thoughts and feelings. The dramatic weight and emotional turmoil is self-evident by things the characters say and do to each other. Some audiences may have difficulty connecting the dots as it’s all incredibly subtle, but the pieces are all there and are functioning appropriately. We are experiencing this distressing time with the characters, so it’s easy to understand and feel every aspect of their fear. By the time the credits have rolled, Erika James has communicated so much by saying very little.
On that note, it’s impressive just how rich the psychological layers are once the climax ties it all together. More importantly, the film’s final point is linked to emotional fears that most people will probably have to go through in their lives. To be clear, Relic communicates this message with a vaguely supernatural and disturbing final act, but the metaphor is unmissable if you’ve been watching carefully. in this way, it’s not too different from The Babadook (2014), which also used terror as a means of confronting aspects of emotional stress. It’s a delicate balancing act, as the film needs to satiate the desire for scary scenes and stay true to its narrative intentions. Thankfully, Erika James is a talented and smart storyteller who has delivered an exciting and thought provocative climax. The wait might be too slow for some, but the results are spectacularly eerie.
One of the most under-appreciated aspects of all horror films are the performances. Yes, Sigourney Weaver was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in Aliens (1986), but running around scared generally isn’t considered great acting even though it should be. Toni Collette delivered one of the greatest performances in recent years with Hereditary (2018), but her work went largely unacknowledged. A standout horror performance requires the actor to display fear, strength and contemplation in equal measure. Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote and Robyn Nevin go above and beyond this call of duty, proving without a doubt that horror films can be a great vehicle for powerful performances. The viewer completely buys into their individual arcs and in some cases is soulfully touched by them, even in the most terrifying situations.
The horror genre has delivered a plethora of amazing films, but it’s probably always going to be misread. With every passing year, the common understand of ‘horror’ moves further away from the most effective examples. However, if we keep getting quality films like Relic, we just might return to a time when we could actually see and feel the true meaning of terror. Relic is a great achievement, which is remarkable considering it’s the debut feature from Natalie Erika James. Whatever her next project is, I will definitely be purchasing a ticket.
Best way to watch it: At night time with the lights off. I’m sorry, but it’s worth it.