When Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) visit the remote, not-to-mention haunted property where Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) lives – a place which is fraught with memories for all three generations of the family – they discover that the old woman, who has already shown signs of dementia, is missing. They alert the authorities and go through the house, finding all sorts of suggestive or disturbing evidence – a chair turned the wrong way, improvised door-fastenings as if Edna were besieged … but after a few days Edna shows up again and won’t or can’t explain where she’s been, even raising the possibility that she may not physically have left the house.
Kay and Sam stay on for a while, though the old woman isn’t exactly delighted at their attempts to look after her, and struggle with the physical and emotional bind they’re all in as it becomes more and more apparent that Edna can’t be left to her own devices but isn’t going to make caregiving easy either. Also, tipping the film over from affecting study of ageing and family ties, Edna is suffering from a black blotchy rash which might be supernatural in origin, and the house – which includes a stained glass window no one likes that has been built in after the shack it was made for was demolished – has hidden recesses into which one or more of the women happen upon at odd moments.
Director Natalie Erika James, who co-wrote with Christian White, gets three remarkable performances from the female leads as difficult women in a tough situation (Nevin is a little reminiscent of Jill Larson in the thematically similar The Taking of Deborah Logan). Relic addresses the issues of dealing with parental dementia via horror film conventions in the way The Babadook deals with child-care, and similarly compounds scenes of affecting, almost agonising realism with bone-chilling spook stuff. Being a gothic tale, this offers an all-female family with secrets that tend to be hinted-at rather than explored, delivering a family curse that might in the end be every family’s curse but has some nasty, unexpected specifics to give it bite.
Nevin’s Edna is a splendid mix of vulnerable and monstrous, with dementia turning off her self-censorship so she can be shockingly, offhandedly cruel or callous to people who are trying to help her. In an affecting bit of backstory, we learn that she once had a sweet relationship with the downs syndrome son (Chris Bunton) of a neighbour but that ended badly during a game of hide and seek. Kay also gets grief from her daughter as she looks for practical solutions (Mortimer is utterly heartbreaking in a couple of tiny scenes as she looks at a care home which she knows her mother would hate) and struggles to deal with the fact that their problems have a supernatural element. As a horror movie, it’s a slow burn – relying on the location (the rambling old estate is a triumph of art directed clutter) and the general gloom to establish a tone, but only getting into the shock-scare business in a very effective last reel where the nooks and crannies and rooms and passageways of a hidden, unseen core of the house start to shift and collapse perhaps in parallel with the processes of Edna’s mind even as the old woman’s black rash becomes a Cronenbergian transformative disease that reduces her body to something other and mummy-like.