With her debut feature film Relic, director/cowriter Natalie Erika James fully realizes her promise as a unique filmmaker shown in her earlier short films such as Tritch (2011) and, in particular, Creswick (2016). With Australia/U.S. coproduction Relic, she has crafted a chilling cinematic work that is certain to be regarded as one of the finest horror films of this year.
As rich in family drama as it is in its fear-fare elements, Relic looks at the generational and familial dynamics between Kay (Emily Mortimer, who most recently ventured into horror cinema with last year’s Mary), her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote of The Neon Demon and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, both 2016), and her elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, both 2003). Kay and Sam travel to Edna’s home, where Kay grew up, after Edna’s neighbors report that she is missing. One day, Edna suddenly shows up in the kitchen putting a tea kettle on to boil, and she cannot — or will not — say where she has been.
Kay has her differences between both her daughter and her mother, and the latter two begin to form a bond. It becomes a tenuous one, though when Edna’s behavior becomes worrisome and even threatening. Her behavior and remarks hint more than heavily that some supernatural forces are at work in the house, something revealed very early on as Edna stares at Christmas lights while flooding the house with water, with a dark, ominous, barely discernible figure lingering on one side of the shot.
Though the foundation for horrific happenings is laid from the beginning, James — who cowrote the script with Creswick screenplay collaborator Christian White — affords a good deal of time early on showcasing the dynamic between the three women relatives, which adds more weight to the dangers that lurk during the second half of the film because viewers are well invested in these characters. This approach also makes the climax more poignant. The drama is highly relatable because of the universal concerns of watching parents and loved ones grow older and often frailer in both mind and body because of the aging process. The horrors of dementia and how it changes the people we know is a main theme of this gripping work.
The three leads are all superb. Mortimer is always excellent, and she brings both strength and vulnerability to her portrayal of Kay. Heathcote is wonderful as Sam, a young woman not even sure what she wants out of life who is suddenly thrust into the realities of being a caretaker. Nevin is magnificent as Edna, the most complex character in the film and the main focus of the eerie goings-on. Among the fine supporting cast members, Down Syndrome actor Chris Bunton (Little Monsters, 2019) stands out as Edna’s young neighbor and Sam’s childhood friend who no longer wishes to go inside Edna’s home.
James has a keen gift for building suspense and in making common objects and occurrences slowly and steadily take on malevolent aspects. Once she begins building the film’s reveals of fear and terror, Relic is a true nailbiter. James is aided by Vanessa Cerne’s (Winchester, 2018) incredible set design, which gives the house a truly macabre, eldritch feeling; Robert Mackenzie’s (The Nightingale, 2018) spine-tingling sound design; and Charlie Sarroff’s (who has collaborated with James on Drum Wave  and Creswick) splendid cinematography.
Relic is an artful, emotional horror film from an exciting new voice. James delivers a masterpiece with her first feature, a truly personal and unique take on the haunted house subgenre. The film has secured a spot high on my Best of 2020 list, and I’m certain that it will appear on many others, too.