Relic Review: Illustrating Tenderness Through Terror

(Image: © IFC)

It's easy — especially for those who don't necessarily appreciate the genre — to underestimate just how heartfelt horror can be in the process of being gruesome.

Natalie Erika James' Relic ends up being a beautiful illustration of how sincerity and love only elevate the terror of a good story. James uses that understanding and combines it with fears that are rooted in the truths of aging to create something perfectly balanced between reality and nightmare.

The film's premise is pretty simple: after Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing without warning, her daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer), and granddaughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), come rushing into town to help find her. Her family and the town's search party look for days with no luck. Then Edna suddenly returns without memory of where she's been or what happened.

The only clue is a pretty nasty bruise on her chest.

After Edna's doctor recommends she not be alone for the time being, Kay and Sam both decide to stay with her until they can figure out next steps. There's a strain between each generation that's expertly illustrated in a quick couple of scenes. The film's 90-minute runtime doesn't allow for any unnecessary exposition: they love each other, but it's complicated.

Relic also is quick to outline Edna's dementia. Sticky notes litter the home of a once harmlessly forgetful grandmother. Simple reminders to flush the toilet, close the door, or turn off the faucet can be seen in every room. As Sam starts to dig around, she begins to find notes that make less sense. "Don't follow it," and "he's here" immediately add to the tension that's spreading through the household as clearly as the mold that stretches across its walls. Newly added deadbolts show Kay and Sam just how frightened Edna had been before their arrival — they just can't seem to find out why.

Rooting a part of the film's suspense in said dementia ends up paying off throughout the entirety of Relic . Not only does it justify Kay and Sam's ignorance to the problem unfolding right underneath their noses, it also entrenches the horror of it all to a level of practicality. That practicality extends past the characters to very simple moments like when Edna's bath overflows and shorts out the space heater kept in the corner of the bathroom (it's an old house, it probably got cold). That short immediately explains why our terrified protagonists are all bumbling around in the dark rather than just flipping a light switch.

Some folks find themselves turned off by the phrase "slow burn," but I urge you to look past that for Relic if you fall under that category. The film's tension will creep up on you. You don't realize how tight your muscles are until Sam finds herself in peril, and it's you'll find yourself downright frightened by the climax. I watch a lot of horror, and am not easily spooked, but there are moments toward the end that had me holding my breath.

The film does something rather rare with its final moments. We won't dive in too deep, because it's important that you see it with your own eyes. But the Relic takes its time to look past the terror with what ends up being its most gruesome scene. Though the ending is something truly macabre, it's also horror at its most tender. It's a masterful moment shared between three generations before the darkness takes hold, and Natalie Erika James and her three leads should be damn proud of it.

Nevin, Mortimer and Heathcote all deliver all-star performances. Earlier we discussed that things are illustrated quickly without wasting too much time on exposition, and it's because of the performances of these leading ladies that the film doesn't need to. Everyone involved is playing exactly who they're meant to, and they're doing a bang-up job!

If I had any complaints, they would be that there are scenes that are shot a little too dark and there are sticky notes during the end whose scrawl is too haphazard to read in the time that they're in frame. Both very small fish in a bigger and infinitely more interesting pond. There's no doubt that Relic is going to be many folks' favorite horror movie of the year, and those accolades couldn't be more deserved.

Amelia Emberwing

Amelia is an entertainment Streaming Editor at IGN, which means she spends a lot of time analyzing and editing stories on things like Loki, Peacemaker, and The Witcher. In addition to her features and editorial work, she’s also a member of both the Television Critics Association and Critics Choice. A deep love of film and television has kept her happily in the entertainment industry for 7 years.