The possessed mom movie is having a moment right now. Between The Babadook, Hereditary and Us, the premise has evolved from a log line – mom must protect her kids from a demon – into its own sub-genre. The latest entry, Relic, is a distinct, visceral experience and a grim reminder that mother and child must eventually grow apart.
Natalie Erika Jame’s ability to notch up that dread – with a creaky floorboard, the movement of a shadow – is all the more impressive given that it takes awhile to warm up to the two heroines. You first meet Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) en route to the Australian woods. There, they hope to spend quality time with Kay’s mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), who is living alone in a two story cottage. The catch: Edna isn’t there. The house is empty.
Kay and Sam decide to stick around anyways, searching Edna’s house for clues, where they stumble upon some weird stuff. Post-it notes are everywhere, as are spots of mold that seem to grow overnight. A certain wall reverberates with a cracking noise. And the camera tilts, bends and pans, giving the house a life of its own. These flashes of stylized imagery enthral, but James does not extend that pizzazz to her characters. At first, Kay is emotionally vacant. Something’s bothering her. Her missing mother, maybe? Or maybe it’s her relationship with Sam, who she has trouble connecting with? Either way, there’s not much to her.
Until Edna shows up one morning, we’re led to believe Kay has given up on her mother. But Edna’s mysterious arrival – she acts like nothing happened – brings up even more questions. Where was she? What’s that bruise on her chest? Why on earth is she wandering around naked at midnight? Why on earth would anyone wander around naked at midnight?
Relic plays out like a classic haunted house movie, with lots of questions and few answers. James isn’t one to show her hand early. She peels back her characters slowly, layer by layer, getting at the secrets that lie just below the surface. Fans of Hereditary will be the first to recognize James’ hidden message – both films are about maternal failure, in which the entity is a Freudian allegory for the demons we inherit from our parents. And, yes, both will give you sweaty palms, too.
Although Relic lacks the scares of Ari Aster’s film or the imagination of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, it manages to keep you clawing at your seat in suspense. When Edna acts even stranger than before, eating old photo albums and attacking Sam, Kay tries to figure out what’s, er, bedevilling mom. It’s not clear at first. But it probably has something to do with a stained-glass window Edna saved from her father’s house after a freak accident. Her Alzheimer’s (something else that was passed down from dad) is also a factor, though, let’s be real, has nothing to do with the damp, ominous cottage that traps the characters inside.
Production designer Steven Jones-Evans looks to have had a blast creating the house, the fleshy wall paper and dark, off-kilter hallways that visually illustrate Kay’s disconnect with her mother and daughter. In one scene, his team and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff watch a wall inhale, then exhale, reminiscent of Roman Ploanski’s Repulsion. James also gets an assist from other talented artists, including Brian Reitzel’s score and Louise McCarthy’s practical effects.
The cast, especially Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote, excel at combining empathy and toughness. Rather than the full-bore gore in most horror flicks, the finale here is gritty, realistic and emotional. When the ending does arrive, complete with secret doorways and emotional barriers for Kay, Sam and Edna to overcome, they do so in a way that proves, yet again, that horror is no match for a mother’s unconditional love.