You’ll see a higher body count in the pre-credits sequences to many a splatter film than you’ll witness in all of “Relic” — but that doesn’t mean you won’t find yourself holding your breath and feeling those tiny hairs on the back of your neck rising to attention in the final moments of this genuinely creepy and disturbing psychological thriller.
This is the kind of movie where the tensions simmer, and simmer, and … simmer, until reaching the boiling point. Where something as simple and seemingly benign as a living room chair rearranged to face a bay window, shiny new locks on old, paint-peeled doors, or a grandmotherly hobby of making candles at home can take on the most ominous and chilling connotations. Where the complicated and layered and not always loving dynamic between a grandmother, a daughter and a granddaughter is magnified by circumstances to the point of truly horrific consequences.
“Relic” is the feel-dread movie of the year.
The consistently excellent Emily Mortimer is Kay, a workaholic single mother to a resentful teenager (are there any other kind in the movies?) named Sam (Bella Heathcoate). When the police inform Kay her elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) has gone missing, Kay and Sam head to Edna’s spacious home, which of course is located in a remote, wooded area, because this is a horror movie. A couple of days pass by and hope is fading for Edna’s return when all of sudden there she is in the kitchen, her feet blackened by dirt and her eyes wild — but acting as if nothing strange has happened.
“Where has everyone gone?” Edna keeps asking. Kay doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Everyone is here.
A typically oblivious movie doctor shows up and says, hey, Edna is getting old and these things happen. Could be the onset of dementia. (Thanks, doc.) Kay and Sam stay on for a few days to look after Edna and engage in fierce debates about whether Edna should be placed in a home. They’re so immersed in their issues, they’re slow to notice there’s something going on with Edna and with this house that goes beyond the easily explainable. The spreading black mold crawling toward the ceiling like a time-lapse vine, the feeling the walls themselves are moving, the rotting fruit, the implied violence when Edna uses a serious knife to carve those candles, the Post-It note Edna carries with her that says “DO NOT FOLLOW IT.” Kay and Sam need to get out of each other’s way and address the madness creeping in from all corners, and eventually they do just that.
Director and co-writer Natalie Erika James relies on familiar horror movie staples — mysterious sounds coming from somewhere within the house, those odd markings on the walls, strange pieces of history coming to light, inexplicable behavior on the part of the certain characters — but then takes the visuals and the storytelling to the next level in the final act, which is grotesque and yet kind of beautiful and then absolutely terrifying.