Writer: Natalie Erika James and Christian White
Director: Natalie Erika James
This new Australian horror begins with one of the genre’s most familiar trope: the overflowing bath tub. It’s such a common scene that it’s a wonder that any woman runs a bath in a house that has signs of eerie goings-on. One of the best examples of the scary bath is in the underrated What Lies Beneath, Robert Zemeckis’s creepy movie starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfieffer. That was twenty years ago, but since then every horror film must reimagine this scene.
Edna lives in a rambling house a few hours out of Melbourne. She’s in her 80’s but she keeps herself busy by sculpting weird shapes out of candles. One day she goes missing causing her daughter Kay and granddaughter Sam to come and look for her in the forest behind the house. A few days later she returns, bloody and ragged, but she refuses to tell her family where she has been. Kay worries that her mother’s disappearance is a sign of dementia, and starts making plans to remove her to a home.
There are suggestions that Edna may not have gone very far at all. There are post-it notes in every room reminding Edna to carry out everyday tasks such as shutting doors, taking pills, and turning off the taps. The house makes noises in the night-time, and a black mould creeps over the wallpaper and even over the front door, which once used to be the door of the hut that Edna’s relatives first lived in when they settled in the area. This is the first sign that Natalie Erika James and co-writer Christian White perhaps have more than family dynamics in their sight.
Emily Mortimer plays Kay, a woman who slowly realises that she could do more to help her ageing mother. Surprisingly, it’s an authentic performance for a horror movie, and likewise Bella Heathcote, playing uni dropout Sam, doesn’t ratchet up the hysteria even when she becomes lost within the house’s secret rooms. It’s down to veteran actor Robyn Nevin to provide the chills, but she does so to exact pity and understanding.
It’s an efficient horror, despite the fact that it lacks any real scares, but The Relic is, of course, an examination of ageing, rather than of monsters and ghouls. In its final minutes, The Relic also points in other directions and to quote the earlier horror film, The Relic is interested in what lies beneath. What lies beneath any mortal human, but also what lies beneath present day Australian society. Already the internet is full of explanations of these bizarre closing moments, but in the end The Relic may have more in common with Jordan Peele’s Get Out than it does The Amityville Horror.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October