in Review, Shocktober

Relic (2020)

Familial Horror has been a dominant force in the horror genre sinces the success of Hereditary. I watched The Lodge earlier this month, which shares similar themes and ideas with Hereditary as does today’s film. What ties these films together is they highlight the fact that we are all bound by blood to our families. Which in a way means we are trapped by our families. Because no matter what you do, or say, or think about your family, they are always your family.

Relic is the debut film from Australian/Japanese filmmaker Natalie Erika James. The story follows mother and daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote), as they travel to their remote family home after Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing. When Kay and Sam arrive they find a mysterious black mold growing inside the house. Edna reemerges the next morning inside the house with no memory of her disappearance. Kay must then learn to deal with Edna’s debilitating mental state and the possibly supernatural phenomena occurring inside the house… and inside Edna.

Like other familial horror films, it isn’t immediately clear what the direct threat to the family is supposed to be. Is there a ghost tormenting the family? A ghoul? Is the mold making everybody crazy (probably not that one), or is there any supernatural presence here at all? Is this black mold and the film’s final scare just metaphorical? (probably that one). I always appreciate a good ghost story rooted in grief. It’s a trademark of Japanese horrorn stories. Natalie Erika James spoke of how her grandmother inspired the film:

“She lived in this quite creepy Japanese traditional house that really scared me as a kid.” “[For the film] we talked a lot about funeral rites. We played that scene similar to how, in Japan, you wash the body of your deceased prior to the funeral. Emily and I approached that in the same way. Even though it has this heightened genre element to it, we played it from as real an emotion as possible, that is acceptance but also grief.”

I’m tiptoeing around the scene that quote is describing (because it’s the end scene.) Though I will say it’s refreshing to see a horror movie that ends on a note of acceptance. No big final battle, just coming to terms with life… and death. It’s a film driven by grounded performances from the three leads, atmospheric sets and an impending sense of dread. This isn’t a jump scare movie. This is far more existential.

I wish these kinds of films got more attention come award season. Horror is taken for granted as a vehicle for delivering powerful metaphors. All the best horror movies are about something deeper and Relic is no exception. It’s Vin Diesel’s worst nightmare, “What if the main conflict in your life was family.” La familia no es buena.