Relic (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Something is festering in her mother’s old house…

Like any good horror movies, Australian horror film “Relic” establishes story, mood, and character first. As slowly letting us get to know more about the strained relationships among its three main characters, the movie gradually dials up the level of creepiness along its deceptive narrative, and then it goes all the way for its full-horror mode with some chilling poignancy in the end.

After the ominous opening scene involved with an old woman named Edna (Robyn Nevin), the movie starts the story from the viewpoint of Edna’s daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote). When they visit the family house where Edna has lived alone since her husband’s death, it is quite apparent that Edna has been absent for a while, and, though she has not been particularly close to her mother, Kay understandably becomes quite concerned because, as reflected by numerous notes to herself throughout the house, her mother has recently shown signs of dementia.

After reporting Edna’s missing to the local police, Kay decides to stay in the family house along with Bell for several days just in case, but then she and her daughter find themselves often disturbed by the dark and creepy mood of the house. At night, they hear something creaking somewhere inside the house, and Kay also has a disturbing dream which turns out to be associated with her old family history.

Anyway, Edna suddenly comes back later, and she does not seem to remember much although she looks fine except a big strange bruise on her body. She soon resumes working on her candle artwork as if nothing serious happened to her, and she is also willing to share some of her old memories with her granddaughter, who comes to like her grandmother more than before and then starts to consider staying longer in the house for taking care of Edna.

However, Kay has a different thought. As watching how her mother still often seems to lose her mind, she decides that she should send her mother to a facility for old people as soon as possible, but she hesitates when she later looks around one of such facilities in Melbourne, which looks pretty glum and depressing due to many old people aimlessly and mindlessly going through their last years. Even though she has been estranged from her mother for many years, she cares a lot about her mother nonetheless, and she comes to stay in the family house more than expected, while still occupied with her work as before.

In the meantime, that uncomfortable aura around her and her daughter in the house keeps increasing day by day. They still hear that strange creaking noise at night, and they become more nervous about Edna as Edna shows a series of erratic behaviors for no apparent reason. At one point, she tries to destroy her several family pictures in a rather grotesque way, and Kay does not know what to do except trying to comfort her increasingly unstable mother.

Of course, there eventually comes a point where Kay and Sam come to face the darkness which has probably been hidden inside the house for many decades, and director/co-writer Natalie Erick James delivers a series of unnerving moments to remember. We get disturbed more as the house comes to show more of its sinister nature, and then we get a terrifying sequence where one of the main characters in the movie suddenly gets trapped in a stuffy maze of corridors and doors with no visible possibility of exit.

And these and other scary moments in the film are constantly driven by what has been established well between its three main characters. They all come to us as fully developed human characters to observe, and the eventual outcome of the dynamic changes in their mutual relationships along the story is surprising but inevitable, considering what has respectively happened to them during their supernatural plight.

The three main cast performers ably carry the film together. Emily Mortimer, a wonderful British actress who has been always dependable since she drew my attention for the first time via her touching performance as the caring mother of the young hero of “Dear Frankie” (2004), did a fabulous job of conveying her character’s increasingly neurotic state of mind, and she is utterly devastating when her character makes a crucial choice around the end of the movie. Complementing Mortimer well throughout the film, Bella Heathcote, who previously played a substantial supporting role in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” (2017), is absolutely convincing when her character comes to grasp the terror inside the house later in the story, and Robyn Nevin, a veteran actress mainly known for her stage and TV works in Australia, holds her own small place well between Mortimer and Heathcote.

“Relic” is the first feature film directed by James, who made four shorts films before making her feature film debut here. While looking pretty modest on the surface, the movie earns its praises and acclaims because of its effective mood, storytelling, and performance, and it surely deserves to be mentioned along with Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” (2014), another recent notable horror film from Australia. Like Kent, James is a talented filmmaker with considerable potential in my inconsequential opinion, and I will look forward to watching whatever will come next from her.

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