Relic – Review
A daughter, mother and grandmother are haunted by a manifestation of dementia that consumes their family's home.
So does anybody fancy another horror movie that’s actually barely a horror and is really much more of drama? Well good because today we are taking a look at Shudder original Australian “Horror” movie Relic.
Relic is a Shudder Original Australian Horror movie directed and written by first time feature length director Natalie Erika James. I say horror movie but that would be mostly incorrect. Relic is far more of a drama than it is a horror. Sure, there is very much a horror movie coat of paint over the surface of the movie but, deep down, it is still just a psychological drama film.
Relic follows mother and daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote) as they return to Kay’s childhood rural home. Kay’s mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), has not been seen for a number of days and so Kay returns to head up the search for her. Edna has been suffering recent bouts of memory loss and, despite still living alone and independently, her absence is alarming.
Upon arriving at the home, the pair notice that things seem pretty normal and there is not too much amiss. The house has been left in a lived in state though there are a significant number of post it notes left dotted around. It would appear that Edna has been using these to help her remember.
A full scale search begins but Edna remains missing. That is until one night when she randomly reappears, seemingly unaware of where she has been and unaware of the significance of her disappearance. A doctor advises Edna to not be alone so Kay and Sam decide to stay with her. During their stay they start to notice that things are not quite right with Edna or the house for that matter.
Edna is acting strangely, bruises are randomly appearing on her body, she is forgetful and aggressive. Edna complains that the house feels foreign to her. Things begin to become rapidly worse and Edna’s mental state seems to be declining. Kay and Sam seek to do whatever they can to help Edna and attempt to discover the mystery behind what’s causing the change in her.
Psychological Horror Epidemic
I genuinely believe we are in the middle of a non-covid related epidemic and The Babadook was patient zero. It feels as though every other movie available to watch on streaming sites is described as a psychological horror despite having virtually no horror elements at all.
Relic is absolutely one of those movies and I am more than willing to suggest that you avoid it altogether if you are sick of these kinds of movies. Sure it has atmosphere, sure it has things moving in the shadows, sure it attempts to keep you on edge with the threat of jump scares, but it is not a horror movie. I can’t go too in to detail without spoiling the movie so I won’t say too much but this is not a horror.
So many horror movies are using stories about monsters or paranormal entities as allegories for mental illness, grief, or other human experiences and, in my opinion, it’s all getting a bit tired and worn out. Sure, some of these movies are absolutely fantastic but, at the end of the day, they are far closer to drama movies than they are to horror.
The use of heavy metaphors is where the issue lies, in my opinion. There is no actual horror here, it’s just a metaphor and that is becoming frustrating. Use an entity or monster in a metaphorical sense and you can call your movie a horror rather than a drama. If most of these movies were released as out and out drama films, they would receive no traction and would be considered to be generally sub-par. When released as psychological horror movies they are immediately festival darlings and “slow burn masterpieces”.
I think film makers are using this to their advantage so they can get more notice and exposure than they would as standard drama movies. The bar with horror is nowhere near as high as with other, more serious, genres but there is still a huge audience to tap into. Horror movies don’t tend to win awards at major award shows and the standards of horror movies are altogether lower than many other genres. A great horror is equivalent to a fairly average drama. For example, you remove the horror elements out of Hereditary and release it as a drama movie and nobody would remember its name after a year.
A movie like Relic with it’s heavy handed metaphors will do much better as a horror than it would otherwise. It’s like a high school kid running in a race with 7 year olds because the other high school kids are too fast. There are a bunch of movies that address the same themes that Relic does without the horror elements and do a far better job. Relic is the proverbial high school kid running against 7 year olds so that it can feel like a winner for a change. It’s an interesting, if not obvious and somewhat worn out, story that would do well as an afternoon Hallmark movie.
Diluting The Horror Genre
Horror movie fans are a fairly easy to please bunch. You never really know what you are going to get from a horror so it’s difficult to say that a movie has to conform to a set standard. This means that horror fans are, naturally, very open to different types of horror so will watch anything. We are also clamouring for stand out movies in a genre that is, lets be honest here, fairly malnourished when it comes to decent offerings.
This starved, ready made, audience makes it extremely tempting for an average drama movie to add in a few spooky elements and masquerade as a horror. The movie will then appeal to an audience that is waiting with open arms but without sacrificing the opportunity to cross over into the mainstream as a horror movie made for a more mature, thoughtful audience. The Babadook did this exact thing and movies have been copying its blueprint ever since.
Now, I feel like people could point to The Shining here as an example of everything I have mentioned above and you would be correct. But there was a genuine antagonist in The Shining, it doesn’t matter that the ghosts weren’t real or the movie was depicting the losing of one’s sanity. There were actual horror elements and a genuine antagonist. That is something most of these movies lack. Let’s not forget, as well, that Kubrick applied a liberal dose of artistic license to what was, otherwise supposed to be a genuine haunted hotel story.
None of this means that Relic is a bad movie. Relic is just what happens when you apply a horror filter to your drama movie. It’s actually a fairly average movie with some above average moments. It does mean, however, that Relic is not going to appeal to all horror fans. Some people will love it, I get that. It might make you feel quite intelligent for understanding and recognising the allegory or you may just enjoy the atmosphere. On the other hand, many people will be left wondering what the hell just happened. An even bigger percentage will be looking on in dismay as they realise they just wasted nearly 90 minutes on a boring drama film full of crap metaphors while the film makers laugh and sniff their own farts in front of you.
The Good Parts
First and foremost, the acting is fantastic throughout. Emily Mortimer as Kay and Robyn Nevin as Edna are both excellent and thoroughly convincing. Robyn Nevin in particular puts on an amazing performance displaying range and depth to her character. She is entirely convincing in her role and really sets the tone. I can’t imagine this was an easy role to play but she is amazing and you feel real sympathy for Edna. There really isn’t a bad performance in the movie.
Cinematography is fantastic. The film feels suitably high budget and there are plenty of interesting shots with moody lighting. It actually reminded me a lot of Without Name in parts thanks to its heavy use of fog and the general dream like ambience.
Natalie Erika James has woven together a tense and claustrophobic atmosphere that actually manages to convince you that you are watching a fully fledged horror for at least some of the movie. There are scenes that are almost unnerving at times. I really hoped this would lead somewhere and it’s just unfortunate that it never does.
There is some really nice set work later on that turns the house into a metaphor all of its own with narrowing hallways and odd perspectives. It was all very Stanley Kubrick and was a nice, unexpected, change of pace.
The Not So Good
The pacing feels glacial, despite an 89 minute or so runtime the movie feels very long. I actually believe this would have worked better as a short. There is a lot of padding, flash backs, dream sequences, and mundane day to day stuff; it all just adds to the feeling that the movie is dragging its feet.
We don’t need to see Sam smoking a cigarette for a few minutes with the neighbour just to set up a layer of exposition. We don’t need to see Kay visiting an old folk’s home; we don’t care what the facilities are like, it’s not us moving a relative in there. We know she went to visit and that’s enough. We don’t need to see Kay and Sam tidying the house and eating. We can assume they did that. It all felt very padded.
Despite the slow pace, when events start to culminate it seems to come out of nowhere. All of a sudden everything is going to shit, everyone is acting strange, and then the movie is over.
It’s worth noting that Relic, despite presenting itself as a horror movie, is not at all scary. It has some degree of tension and atmosphere but that evaporates pretty quickly and as the events of the movie become more clear the tension dissipates further. The horror elements of the movie feel shoehorned in. It’s almost as if they had to hit a quota of horror tropes before they could be classed as a horror movie. Indeed, as I have mentioned earlier, Relic is not really a horror unless you consider the realities of aging and hereditary disorders horrifying.
Relic just feels a little bit pretentious. It has a message, albeit one that is not particularly suited to the horror genre, and it is very proud of itself for delivering this message. The message is delivered fairly effectively but its kind of like telling people that getting old can suck. We all know, there’s a lot of things that can go horribly wrong as we age and we all need to look after each other, and ourselves, wherever possible. The ending in particular feels a bit cheesy and the fart sniffing is in full force for at least the final 5 minutes.
Is it a Knockout?
Relic is a well acted movie that looks fantastic and is very proud of its message. It is not, however, a horror in the truest sense of the word. It is extremely slow paced and, despite having some degree of tension in parts, is very much a drama movie masquerading as a horror.
Outstaying its welcome before coming to a chaotic end, the hints of some potential scares never really come to fruition. If you enjoy traditional horror you will likely find yourself bored to tears and regretful that you wasted your time on something that is little more than a Hallmark drama film about the perils of aging. If you are a little more open minded and have a tolerance for stories with heavy handed metaphors, Relic may be for you.