Growing up, I remember going to my grandmother’s house on weekends with my mom. Rural Tennessee is not the easiest path to travel, so getting there was sometimes an ordeal, not for the faint of heart. While summertime was not usually a problem (except if it flooded), winter was incredibly challenging after any amount of snow. The curvy, single-lane gravel road would freeze up with solid layers of ice. As it was not managed by the roads department in the small county, the path would take weeks to unfreeze, as it was covered by a veil of trees and hillsides. To make matters worse, the road was incredibly thin and had steep drop-offs on both sides, making even momentary slides pucker inducing. Looking back, it was amazing we never had an accident getting there.
Not only could the journey be scary, but once you got to my grandmother’s house, the creeps did not end. The entire house was not a problem. The kitchen always smelled amazing. The living room was warm and inviting. And the farmland her house was on was just ripe with adventures! But there were sections inside the house that always gave me the heebie-jeebies.
The upstairs was always dark and empty. The wooden staircase would creak with every single step going up. The rooms upstairs held antiques, boxes of old items and just smelled like mothballs. The cellar wasn’t much better, other than it was always cold. The stone steps didn’t creak, but the air was stale, smelling like earth and whatever canned vegetables grandmother had put down there. And then there was the “sitting room.” The furniture was covered with plastic and white sheets. It was away from the main rooms of the house, and only had a large window illuminating it. Of all the years I went to her house, I only remember being in that room a handful of times, and each time I felt uneasy and scared. It was nightmare material for sure, and I think it is one reason why attic scenes in haunted houses always get me.
That same uneasy feeling wrapped around me as I watched the new IFC Midnight film Relic, Natalie Erika James’ directorial debut, written by James and Christian White. This spine-chilling horror film premiered this year at Sundance to great reviews. On July 3rd, the film was released on IFC Midnight in the United States, so I am a little late to the release party. But like my uncle always said, “better late than never.”
Relic is one of those “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go” horror flicks. Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), travel to pay a welfare visit on Kay’s mom, Edna (Robyn Nevin). Edna had not been seen for days by her neighbors, so they alerted Kay that something may be up. Initially, Kay and Sam could not find Edna, but did find that the house was covered in a weird black mold. Worried that something may have happened to her mother, Kay calls the police, and decides that she and Sam will stay in the house until Edna is found.
Days later, Edna is back in the house without any reason given. She has a black bruise on her chest and is dealing with dementia, but other than that, she is in perfect physical health. Kay tells Sam they are going to stay a few more days with her, even though Sam has been dealing with horrific nightmares involving a cabin and an old man, as well as struggles to keep her job. In contrast, Sam develops a bond with her grandmother, going as far as offering to stay with her even longer, should Kay decide to leave.
Things begin taking a darker turn as time marches on. Kay begins secretly looking for nursing homes for her mom. Sam begins talking to the neighbors after a rather disturbing encounter with Edna, and discovers that Edna had locked the neighbor’s son in a walk-in closet for hours. The encounter terrified the boy, and the neighbor forbade the child from ever speaking to Edna again. After this discovery, Kay finds Edna eating photographs in the house, trying to protect her memories. Chalking it up to dementia, the family bonds again to show support for Edna.
But as with any haunted house film, the plateau that happened during the bonding period of Relic is short lived. Soon, more and more disturbing events occur. And the family finds that Edna may be harboring more than a mental illness inside her.
Relic is one of those slow-build horror films that I love. The film is touted as a “horror drama,” and that is the perfect description. Half of the film focuses on the real-life struggles that families of dementia patients deal with. My father dealt with it in a small way through his last couple of years of life. I remember going to see him and him not really remembering me. I mean, he knew that I was his son, but he could not remember my name, or things we had done just days earlier, or other things that we take for granted. Luckily, the second half of the film dealing with the supernatural never happened to us. The mold in the house of Relic represented not only the destruction of mental health, but it also hid the true evil that was an infection upon the entire family. Truly, Relic was well written on both its natural and unnatural storylines.
With such a rich and well-written story that is blended beautifully, Relic deserves nothing but praise. I give IFC Midnight’s Relic as solid five out of five stars. Natalie Erika James has a very bright future in horror. Her incredible talent as a director is evident in Relic. I wish more directors had even an ounce of her skills. Maybe if that was true, there would be even more great horror films to review.