NZIFF 2020 – Relic REVIEW
Director – Natalie Erika James
Starring – Emily Mortimer (Kay), Robyn Nevin (Edna), Bella Heathcote (Sam), Jeremy Stanford (Alex), Chris Bunton (Jamie)
It takes a lot to impress horror movie fiend GARY STEEL, but Relic takes a cliched horror subgenre and twists it into something else altogether.
Those of us who love a good (or even a really bad) horror have been poorly served by successive generations of film makers who have either snobbishly ignored the genre, or worse, shown their profound ignorance by fusing horror and comedy.
Still, there have been numerous attempts at films that try to scare viewers, and there are plenty of examples of fairly weak modern updates of just about every horror subgenre on Netflix. In fact, Netflix seems to specialise at commissioning very ordinary projects by very competent technical crew. The result, unexpectedly, usually leads to films that look great but with stories that are hackneyed.
The two hardest horror subgenres to make something fresh out of are zombies and the classic scary house movie. Zombies have completely lost their zing through being endlessly remade and remodelled (and still they come), while the house of horror had largely lost its scare-power by the mid-‘70s.
Relic is an Australian horror that actually works, and does so because it’s both adept at putting across its sense of creeping awfulness and a metaphor for something very real: the sometimes freaky final stages of human life and how we cope when it happens to our parents. There’s a lot of house of horror about the movie and a wee bit of sort-of zombie, and although it’s impossible to completely navigate without avoiding all of the abundant clichés of those horror subgenres, there’s also something quite different to be found here.
Where those Netflix productions seem happy to grab some half-baked Stephen King story and adapt it without adding any detectable depth, texture or meaning, there’s a whole lot more going on in Relic, in which a mother and daughter are called to the family mansion after the family matriarch goes missing.
Set in the picaresque countryside somewhere near Melbourne and mostly shot inside the beautiful but mysterious old mansion, Relic is exceptionally well acted and shot, and like the best horror films, it feels like the director (Natalie Erika James) has got right inside the subject matter and taken it seriously, and given the audience the green light to do so in the process.
It’s not a film with too many scares in it but more of a sense of unease and oddness as the creepiness ramps up. Where horror films tend to require huge leaps of faith, there are only a couple of scenes in Relic that left me thinking: “Nah, she wouldn’t have done that.” And because it slowly builds, when the inevitably manic, surprising denouement comes along, it’s surprising enough to make the heart race. (No, I’m not going to spoil it for you).
Robin Nevin as the matriarch is exceptional, and is utterly convincing as she flips from sweet old lady to someone who appears to have been taken over by some kind of demon. The mother (Emily Mortimer) and daughter (Bella Heathcoate) are also excellent. They need to be, as that’s about the extent of the cast, aside from the brief appearance of a cop and a short scene with the boy-next-door (who has Downs Syndrome) and another with his Dad. Heathcoate (who got her start on Neighbours, natch) has a natural grace and her impossibly large doe-eyes make her a pleasant watch. But more importantly, the casting feels right and works well and the dialogue between the mother, the daughter and the matriarch rings true.
The subtext here, of course, is that those of us unlucky enough to have to watch our parents slowly go downhill into dementia are in for a really rough ride that is a kind of horror to live through. And at its core, that’s what the horror genre is: a reflection of our fears in all their forms.
The only slight flaw in Relic is the bizarre ending, which I didn’t really get. But if you get it, and appreciate it, then you might want to add an extra star to my 7.5 grading.
* Relic has its premiere in select theatres on Saturday July 25 at 9pm and is then available to watch online from Sunday July 26 to July 31 as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.
Check out Witchdoctor’s New Zealand International Film Festival reviews: