“I think she was scared.”
“Scared of what?”
A daughter calls for her mother in a misty patch of woods. Christmas lights pulse in an empty living room. Water floods a clawfoot tub. A nude elderly woman stares into space, clutching a dripping towel.
Anyone watching the first few scenes of Relic, director Natalie Erika James’s debut feature, could be forgiven for for assuming that the scariest aspect of the movie might be the sight of a varicose vein or how quickly fruit rots in a wicker basket. The plot is simple: a dementia-addled widow, Edna (Robyn Nevin), has disappeared; her daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer), and granddaughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), head to the family estate to search. “Gran” soon turns up, but something is way off.
“There’s such a coldness here,” says Edna, looking off into what seem to be vacant corners in the back of the frame. The home itself feels like a rural Aussie version of Poe’s 1839 story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Congested with hoarded bric-a-brac, dusty portraits, and creepy hand-carved candles, it slowly takes on a corporeal quality, moribund and musty. Liver-spotted wallpaper sags from the ceiling; black mold splotches the quaint stained glass. There is a dog door but no dog. Forgotten dry-clean bags crackle in the closet. Gradually, and unnervingly, the body of the domicile and that of the matriarch become one and the terrible same.
Much has been made of the film’s final third, in which the grandmother’s mercurial nature becomes lacerative and predatory. But keen observers attuned to subtle staging and editing will notice warnings from the start that something dreadful lurks not just offscreen, but in the depths and edges of the crowded frame. It’s possible that no film released mid-pandemic was more visually compromised than Relic by a lack of big-screen distribution; this perhaps led to the common critical assessment of the film as a metaphor for fear of parental aging.
On one level, Relic comments on exactly that: the anguish of tending to a parent who may, with the snap of a weathered hand, transform from helpless to sinister. “Isn’t that how it works?” says Sam to Kay, dismayed at her mother’s plan to send Gran to a nursing home. “Your mum changes your nappies, then you change hers?” The trio is well cast and realistic: Nevin, 77, is both physically frail and expressively menacing; Mortimer, 48, bears the facial sweetness of an eternal five-year-old in the body of a beleaguered middle-aged woman; moon-faced Heathcote, 33, shifts between indignant and protective, shuffling around in boxy sweaters and smoking alone on the porch.
While the narrative certainly speaks to intergenerational anxieties about an aging Boomer population (peddled as “independent living with the edges off,” the Melbourne retirement center is drearily antiseptic), the film delves into a darkness beyond filial caregiving, approaching the mother figure as the first, and last, monster, her house a veritable womb for distinctly female trauma. We find out little about Edna’s late husband, and aren’t really told if Kay ever had one. The only male character Sam cares about is Jamie, the teenage boy with Down Syndrome who lives next door, and whose early fear of coming inside serves as a brilliant plant.
There are precedents for this new wave of maternal horror: Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby from 1968 or David Cronenberg’s The Brood from 1979, and of course there is a rich history of horror movies in which a mother is the evil shrew or oblivious victim. But in this new era of “mommy horror” — much of it written and directed by women filmmakers — the prospect of mothering is itself exposed as a fearsome burden; female characters battle the house as a dreadful “body,” a foil for their own.
In Darren Aranofsky’s mother! (2017), for instance, the old “house” implodes as the titular mother’s body is imperiled, while Jennifer Kent’s Babadook (2014) chronicles the terrors of single mothering, feeding on how mental anguish and body horror can easily overlap. By the last act of the film, the mother becomes one with the haunted house, vomiting evil in a black spew that splashes all over the basement. And in Ari Aster’s 2018 Hereditary, the protagonist, Annie (Toni Colette), directly admits to her child she never wanted to be a mom; as Annie obsessively crafts miniature facsimiles of her sprawling manse, her grip on her family falls apart.
Unlike Aster’s powerful but overly ambitious take on the genre, Relic doesn’t aim for anything it can’t do perfectly, and its restraint might be one reason many seem to have missed its most terrifying visual motif. “It’s here, under the bed,” bleats Edna to Kay, her blue eyes guileless as a little girl’s. But what is “it”? And when we see “it,” do we ignore it, or do we start to notice it across the film?
While Hereditary and Babadook reward the viewer for empathizing with a hysterical female figure, Relic never suggests that any character — even Edna — is necessarily unhinged, that the “it” isn’t real on some palpable level. The respect James pays her characters — and audience — is immense: Edna might have a shaky grasp of reality, but she recoils at condescension and lucidly laments her loneliness; Kay might initially doubt her mum, but she eventually embraces the gravity of her last (grotesque) daughterly act; Sam instinctively trusts her Gran, and has the audacity to inspect the walk-in closet that serves as the ventricle to the heart of maternal darkness.
Upon Sam’s transgression, the house in the woods slowly turns in on itself. Sam is trapped within a labyrinth that twists, dead-ends, and slowly contracts, as if she’s navigating the world’s worst birth canal. Once reunited with Kay in this liminal nether-region, the pair run from the panting monster matriarch, busting through a wall above a fireplace, a blow to the “hearth” if there ever was. The daughter escapes out the hole first, pulling Kay from the house’s clenches as though midwifing her mother’s violent birth.
“Mum, what are you doing?” Sam cries from outside the home as Kay lags behind with her dying mother. “Let’s just go.” But Kay can’t, and instead carries Edna up the stairs — an image that recalls putting a child to sleep. With a final scene as tender as it is shockingly macabre, Relic ultimately suggests that the fear of death is much worse than death itself — but that the bruise of matrilineal grief doesn’t fade with the grave.
Relic, directed by Natalie Erika James, is available to rent or buy on Amazon.