The frustrations of dealing with a loved one suffering from dementia form the unique premise of “Relic,” an interesting, thoughtful debut feature from writer / director Natalie Erika James. Traditional horror fans may be disappointed by the film, but it’s compelling how the genre lends itself well to a deeper exploration of the psychology of fear.
When 80-year-old Edna (Robyn Nevin) mysteriously vanishes, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) travel to her decaying country home to search for clues about the disappearance. They find an empty house with some very concerning indications that Edna’s dementia has become worse. From misplaced furniture to an attic covered in sticky note reminders, the scattered evidence of a woman who isn’t well is clear. Eventually Edna shows up, but the woman refuses to say where she has been. In the coming days, Edna’s behavior turns progressively volatile as she lashes out at her family — and talks back to the menacing shadows she sees in the walls.
It’s a sophisticated idea for a horror movie, and James sets up a good mystery. Eventually she paints herself into a corner, with a disappointing conclusion and too many heavy-handed metaphors about fear and aging. It becomes clear that the shadow figure is a manifestation of Alzheimer’s, preying on Edna’s vulnerability and feeding into the stresses of her condition, and reflecting Kay’s heartbreak of caring for a parent who is in rapid decline. James repeats this symbolism of darkness and decay ad nauseum, long after the very last person in the audience has understood that dementia is the black cloud that consumes loved ones. We get it. We got it.
As far as entertainment goes, there is enough “bump in the night” mood setting to make “Relic” an enjoyable thriller on the most basic level. I was impressed with the meaningful storytelling and what James was trying to achieve through her messaging, I just wish she hadn’t felt the need to overstate her themes.