Since the release of The Babadook in 2014, there certainly hasn’t been a shortage of horror films dealing with mental illness. One of the most recent one’s being Hereditary released in 2017 which is still A24’s highest grossing movie to date. So obviously there is a market for this specific type of horror, but it will undeniably always divide audiences. A lot of this is due to the “slow burn” approach in the storytelling, relying more on atmosphere and mood rather than jump scares. Relic is absolutely no exception to this rule.
Kay (Emily Mortimer) decides to go to her mother’s house (Robyn Nevin) after being told that she has not been seen by anyone for days. Kay’s daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) joins her as well as they search high and low for their mother/grandmother. After she is finally discovered, they notice that something is very obviously off about her. The early parts of the movie excellently builds tension, laying out the house for the viewer. This is all purposely done early because this house will eventually become a character, figuratively speaking of course. To call this a “haunted house” movie would be an absolute undersell. Through its 89 minute run time, I counted zero jump scares. Come to think of it, there’s essentially zero horror movie tropes that you would traditionally group in with a haunted house movie. What it does instead is establish emotional resonance, really sending home to the viewer that this woman is suffering with dementia. In that regard, I could see Relic being a bit too much for some audiences, but for me, I always appreciate when there’s some heartbreaking substance within all the horror. With that being said, even I found myself depressed for the majority of the film.
Director Natalie Erika James does an outstanding job of setting up shots early on that will play a huge role in the later parts. Not to mention the cinematography and production design just adds to the devastating nature of the film, consistently looking dreary and on the verge of falling apart. I was also surprised by how claustrophobia was featured in some of the later parts of the film. In a lot of ways, I suppose Relic had an unpredictable nature to it, especially by the time we get to the final third. This final third (to me) is pretty much all allegorical. There is some pretty insane, nonsensical things that happen, but for me, it just adds to the overall message of the film. Similar to a movie like Us, you have to overlook some of the impossible things that occur to look at what this film is trying to convey to its audience. By the time we reach the end, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming wave of emotion roll over me. This is one of the most poignant endings to a horror movie that I’ve seen since 2014’s Under the Skin. And don’t get me wrong, there’s still a creepiness factor that never goes away, but if you really look into what the film is saying, it’s hard not to shed a tear or two.
In a year that’s been kind of weak for movies (for obvious reasons), Relic shines and showcases how smart, atmospheric horror can excel, even if it’s on your TV at home rather than a theater. If you’re not looking to feel some pretty deep emotions with your horror, then I’d say give this a pass. But if you’re looking for an even better and more emotionally devastating horror film than earlier this year’s The Lodge, I’d say Relic will be something that you’ll greatly enjoy. This is easily the best piece of horror I’ve seen in 2020.