Atmosphere is everything in this ghost-less ghost story, in which a house is haunted not by a poltergeist, but the demon of dementia. It’s the kind of disease that afflicts one family member and digs its tentacles into those who try to manage it. Relic marks an auspicious debut for Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James, who wants her slow-building thriller to seep into your bones rather than pound you with cheap scares. Still, things truly do go bump in the night in the woodsy house outside Melbourne occupied by eightysomething Edna, played by Aussie theater legend Robyn Nevin. No sooner does Charlie Sarroff’s prowling camera find the naked Edna in an overflowing bathtub then a neighbor reports her missing.
When their calls to Edna are not returned, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) arrive to bring in the police and do their own sleuthing. An estrangement between Edna and Kay has kept the women apart. And now all that’s left are Edna’s own written reminders and one sinister post-it note that reads: “Do not follow it.” Kay is almost as freaked out by the shocking disrepair of her mother’s house since her last visit. Starting in on a cleaning binge with the help of Sam doesn’t halt the mold that’s creeping in everywhere.
The house as a metaphor for Edna’s deteriorating mental state never loses its hold even when Edna returns home three days later with no idea where she’s been. Or at least she’s not telling. A doctor’s visit reveals nothing physically wrong, except a black mark on Edna’s chest that attentive audiences will see as a smaller manifestation of the black mold invading the premises.
In a film with such slowly escalating terrors, so much depends on how much the actors draw us into the lives of its trio of central characters. Even when Edna transitions from a frightened old woman to an imperious tyrant with violent impulses, Nevin never loses touch with her character’s bruised heart. And the splendid Heathcote brings an abiding warmth to Sam that gives her the strength to cope with this new side of gran. Still, it’s the reliably superb Mortimer who takes Relic to its darkest places, where the bond of mother-daughter love is tested to its limits. And in a devastating final scene, these three generations of women movingly unite against the forces marshaled against them.
Chief among those forces is the house, a triumph of production and sound design; there moments where it seems to be breathing, and ready to turn in on itself so as to squash those who dare to enter its labyrinths. Nearby on the property was a cabin, long since demolished, that holds memories of past trauma that haunt Kay’s nightmares and may be edging into Sam’s. Relic is not in same master class as Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook — the script by James and Christian White runs into too many narrative dead-ends. But there’s no doubt why Jake Gyllenhaal and the Russo brothers wanted to come in on the producing side. James, showing the rare ability to shape horror to reveal elemental truths about the human condition, is a major filmmaker in the making. Available on demand and in select theaters and drive-ins starting July 10, her movie messes with your head long after you turn out the lights.