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RELIC (October 25th)


Tonight I turned to the October edition of Frightfest 2020 for my horror pick. It's the second virtual festival of the year for Frightfest – the first one being in August, where I consumed 13 movies over the course of 4 days. However, in retrospect I probably should have waited for the October offering because although there were some decent features in August, the October line-up is bigger and more impressive. Unfortunately (well, fortunately in some ways) work is a bit full on at the minute so getting a festival pass and pigging out on a dozen or so films over a few days was not going to be feasible. But thankfully, you can purchase individual tickets and so I spent a good ten minutes or so trying to work out which of the six films that were playing yesterday that I should watch. There were a couple of strong candidates but in the end I went with a film called Relic, partly because it sounded like my kind of bag and also because I have heard positive things from those who have seen it.

The film begins with mother and daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote) heading up to the remote home of Edna, Kay's mother and Sam's grandmother. Although seemingly physically fit, Edna has dementia and a neighbour has reported her missing, having not seen or heard from her for a few days. When Kay and Sam arrive at the sprawling country house there is no sign of Edna. The house is locked from the inside however so it's not clear how she would have left. On top of this, there are weird banging and creaking noises coming from various parts of the house, as well as a black mould that slowly seems to be spreading everywhere. They also find little notes that Edna has left around the house, written in an attempt to remind herself of certain things' Stuff like 'turn off taps' and 'take pills' make sense but notes like 'don't follow it' are a little bit more troubling. After a couple of days of searching the local woodland and having no luck, Kay and Sam begin to fear the worst. But then one morning Edna appears, unkempt but unaware that she has been missing and unable to account for the past few days. She's given a check up by a doctor who says she is physically ok (apart from a large bruise on her chest) but tells Edna that Kay and Sam are going to have to stay with her for a few days. Whilst Kay is determined to find out where her mum has been the last few days, Sam is just happy to have her back. But joy gradually turns to concern and trepidation as she begins to suspect that there is something else going on with her grandma, beside the dementia. As Edna's behaviour becomes more erratic and troubling, Sam begins to wonder if there is something more sinister going on...

I've seen a number of impressive debut features over the last few weeks and this is another to add to the list. The fact there are so many talented, young film-makers out there is something to celebrate. Australian writer-director Natalie Erika James deserves an awful lot of credit for Relic, an eerie, creepy but emotional movie that offers a fresh spin on what you think is going to be standard haunted house fare. It's part family drama, part horror – hence the comparison to Ari Aster's Hereditary. It's not an unwarranted comparison. Both films blend those two genres and are about mother-daughter relationships and they both have the same atmosphere of subtle dread. However, Relic ultimately catapults off in a different direction and by the end, the films feel a lot less alike. It actually also reminded me a little of M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit and The Taking of Deborah Logan too. The subject of mental health is prevalent (more so in Relic admittedly) but they all tap into that fear of both mental degradation and also, at a more primitive level, the fear of old people. I realise that's a shitty thing to say but I can't hide the fact that in horror movies, old people frighten me. Not all of them obviously, but old people acting strangely or uncannily unsettles me a lot more than 'creepy kids' etc. I don't really know why. I think it's because on some level, old people are safely pigeonholed as 'non threatening' and are supposed to behave in certain ways. However, when those things are ripped up, it's frightening. A lot of the horror in Relic comes from either Kay or Sam finding Edna doing something odd, quite often during the middle of the night. It's a slow burn, slow build approach but one that ultimately succeeds because it does deliver some jumps and some shock moments to punctuate the brooding creepiness.

However underneath all this and fighting to rise to the surface is the subject of Edna's decline as a human being, both mentally and physically. The film doesn't merely treat the proud patriarch as a 'scary old woman' like some of the other films mentioned before. She is a mother and grandmother who is losing her identity and her memories and as the story progresses, it's this that anchors everything and helps deliver what is a finale that is scary, sad and also kind of beautiful too.


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