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Relic (2020) Review

After 80-something Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing, her daughter (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter (Bella Heathcote) rush to her dilapidated home. Yet when an initially fine Edna returns, her behavior becomes increasingly volatile, as if she is being controlled by a malevolent presence.

It may have a hoary off-the-peg horror title, but Relic has a style and flavor all of its own. With shades of Hereditary and The Babadook, Natalie Erika James’ debut eschews cheap scares to play out psychological horror on three different generations of women delivered by creative filmmaking from every department, a trio of great performances, and a director with both the taste and confidence to take her time to conjure up heavy atmosphere. Counting Jake Gyllenhaal and the Russo brothers among its producers, the result is a low-key but satisfying cut of sustained dread.

James and Christian White’s screenplay divides the action into three distinct acts. The first is a missing person procedural as Kay (Emily Mortimer, adopting a top-notch Aussie accent) and twentysomething daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) respond to calls from the police to say that Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) has not been seen for a while. Arriving at the run-down, empty house hidden in a wood, they discover a string of Post-it notes — instructions including “take pills”, “turn off the tap” and the decidedly creepy “don’t follow it” — organize search parties and give police reports. Yet when Edna turns up unharmed and seemingly okay, the film morphs into a beautifully played family drama, Mortimer, Heathcote, and Nevin conveying believable, naturalistic relationships, the shifting dynamics between grandmother, mother, and daughter keenly but subtly etched.

Throughout these early sections, James sews in perfectly judged images of unease — the lights of a Christmas tree, mold on a wall, and a bowl of decomposing fruit take on an extra-creepy frisson, amped up by composer Brian Reitzell and sound designer Robert Mackenzie. As underlying tensions between the three women begin to surface, exacerbated by the increasingly unstable behavior of Edna, Relic begins to reveal its hand: the creepy old house becomes a stand-in for Edna’s deteriorating mind and takes on a malign demeanor all of its own, full of dark corridors (exploited to the full by cinematographer Charlie Sarroff’s stalking camera), dead-ends, hidden chambers, shifting geometry and doorways that disappear behind you. But as the movie moves into its second half, the gloves come off and Relic turns into a full-on assault on the senses. The ambiguous ending will divide and delight in equal measure. Wherever you land, you’ll need a strong stomach.

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