Relic (2020)

“We’ve been keeping our distance a bit.”

Predictable in where it starts and promising with where it might go, Relic is modern horror steeped in the old ways of dramas sickened by a sour family tree. As such, it’s the kind of film which quite rightfully knows it won’t necessarily be everyone’s cup of tea, let alone their brewed brand of choice. However, that turns out to be more our problem than it is the film’s, and the reliable direction behind Relic tends to elevate a script full of a few solid swings and a few too many misses. Ambition can be both a blessing and a curse.

Things get off to a good start in this initially lean, tightly wound narrative following a brief dip in the mysterious end of the pool, jumping from puzzling imagery to personal circumstance in mere minutes. It’s hard to know what to make of the opening shots, which has been done of purpose. Segue a little later and we come across Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcoate), each concerned about the well-being of their Mom or Gran named Edna (Robyn Nevin), who lives alone and hasn’t been seen or heard from for an unsettling number of days. Convention blames it on dementia and old age. But then she turns up, as if she had never been gone, with a mind as fit as a fiddle and feet covered in soil. She’s there, but her soul seems different.

On the spooky grounds of this familial horror story, the first introduction inside this potentially haunted house plot is most reminiscent of Ari Aster’s Hereditary (or, for those who watch series, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House is a mild comparison), except Relic dovetails its third act into unhinged paranoia instead of expanding on history and evolving into something new. It still works reasonably well when it’s stripped down and bare, but struggles when it attempts to quite literally manifest a maniacal labyrinth without rules or regulations. Relic has literal twists and the turns to keep you interested, yet the final act is so uncharted that the film gets lost in the new tweaks and the old recesses of its own imagination. It almost seems to take an eerie, Edgar Allen Poe approach to Poltergeist without using enough time to explain how we can get lost between halls and walls that raised us.

Relic is the kind of film that has a tasty looking hook and a devilish sinker, but it’s lacking some control over the line to make casting out into its murky pool worthwhile. However, while the film is intriguing and creepy enough to sustain momentum until the story inevitably flames out, its presence nonetheless lingers. Relic relies more on the strength of its trio of female solid performances – and especially the restraint shown by the promising new filmmaker Natalie Erika James – to deliver a final shot that’s more ominous and telling than anything else in the film. It’s a grotesque and intimate image, one which illustrates in seconds how we pass the best and the worst of ourselves from one generation to the next, forcing a relic onto the eventual runner destined to inherit the dastardly baton by no choice of their own. Relic is fatalistic in that way, and while worth recommending, I have to wonder what the film might have been had it married the material to a more off-beat and unique tone. What’s good might have turned out to be great.

“I can see you.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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