The horror, in Japanese Australian first-timer Natalie Erika James’ “Relic” manifests in many ways. There are frightening dreams that are both portents of things to come and deeply buried memories of traumas past. There is plaster infested with creeping black mold and a scrabbling noise in the brickwork. There are bruises that blossom like rot across breastbones and strips of skin that shear away from flesh the texture of beef jerky beneath. But in many ways the movie’s simplest conceit is its most chilling and gives rise to its most impressively scarifying filmmaking: A house can be a direct metaphor for the mind of its inhabitant. So when that inhabitant is slowly losing herself to dementia, the house begins to collapse in on itself, a labyrinth of dead ends, foreshortened impossible geometries and doorways that turn into solid walls behind your back. If growing up is often portrayed as realizing you can never go home again, in the enigmatic, mournful, deeply creepy “Relic,” growing old is realizing that even as home betrays you, you can never get away from it.
The house is a cluttered old place set in a wooded countryside, and its longtime resident is Edna (Robyn Nevin), whose long white hair is a handy indicator of how together she is — neatly pinned back when she’s her irascible, spiky self, loose and straggly when she’s become vague and disoriented. When she is not seen around for a bit, the police call her daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer), who drives up from Melbourne with her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote). They discover a house empty of Edna but full of Post-it notes bearing reminders that range from the banal, like “take pills,” to the cryptic — like “don’t follow it.” They organize search parties and make police reports, but mostly Sam and Kay just wait in the house, absentmindedly tidying up and poking gently through Edna’s things for clues, until one night she simply shows up again.
For a time she seems fine, irritated to be treated like an invalid. But soon she starts to deteriorate, and Kay is faced with tough decisions about her mother’s future while also being troubled by nightmares and noises that send her creeping through darkened hallways at night — a motif that is a little overused, it should be said. DP Charlie Sarroff’s photography is largely terrific, with patient, observant frames accumulating mood steadily and making a bowl of rotting fruit look like a still life in oils. In his considered, hushed images, things that are cheerful become ominous, like the pulsing of colorful Christmas lights on a tree, and even twee flourishes, such as Edna working at her candle art, become inexplicably sinister. But there are times when peering into the dim, crepuscular lighting becomes a bit irritating, when you start to suspect that a lot of the women’s anxiety could be dissipated with a couple of 100-watt lightbulbs. Coupled with Brian Reitzell’s rattling, glimmering, unnerving score, which sometimes wells up unnecessarily and overflows, occasionally James overplays her horror-movie hand and we notice the contrivances.
Mostly, though, this talented debut writer-director has unusual confidence in her storytelling and beds its more lurid excesses so deeply in the cleanly drawn psychologies of her three actors that it feels like it grows out of them organically, like a twisted tree. And here she’s capably abetted by Mortimer, Heathcote and Nevin’s excellent performances that draw the intergenerational relationships between grandmother, mother and daughter with lived-in subtlety and insight. Sam’s interactions with her grandmother are easier, more carefree than those between Edna and Kay, who have the longer history together, and who seem to have become casually estranged in recent times. Kay is offhandedly dismayed by Sam’s lack of direction; Sam, street-smart though she is, also exudes that youthful faith that everything broken is fixable. And twice over, like a generational echo, we observe the sad truism of how a daughter can deeply love her mother while also despising or fearing the aging version of her own self that Mum represents.
There are parallels with both “Hereditary” and “The Babadook” here — all three films are female-fronted horrors deeply involved with motherhood, largely confined to one haunted house, in which the evil that lurks in the shadows is really an allegory for a powerful state of psychological breakdown. But good as it is, “Relic” is unlikely to be quite the breakout those two films were, largely because of James’ laudably but divisively uncanny ending, when, after a showdown of sorts, the film becomes less explicable rather than more so. Not everyone will appreciate the ambiguity of a climax that can be read as either an uplifting act of pure and selfless love or a depressing capitulation to the malign forces of inevitable decline, but either way, “art-house horror” has its 2020 tidemark set high.