Thursday, October 22, 2020

An Unwanted Heirloom

Relic (2020)

There's an old interview with director David Cronenberg that has stayed with me in which the interviewer asked Cronenberg what scared him. Cronenberg said, "When I go to pick up my kids at school and they're not there waiting for me." That something so mundane would scare a man whose business was scaring people is telling. Most of the things people fear are in the everyday of their lives, not big sweeping things like zombie apocalypses or robot uprisings or mutagenic television signals. Most really good horror movies connect with something that real people actually fear from day to day. Sometimes, they do it in abstract ways. Sometimes they do it pointedly and on the nose. The challenge is in finding something that enough people fear to pull it off and in making that fear real for an audience. A surprising number of horror movies fail at this, either from a failure to face that fear head on or by burying it too deeply under the tropes of genre. This isn't a problem for Relic (2020, directed by Natalie Erika James). It puts its finger on a set of existential terrors that are close to universal that real people face every day, then follows them to their logical conclusion. It's an unsettling movie.



The plot of Relic finds Kaye and Sam, mother and daughter, summoned to the house of Kaye's mother, Edna, who has gone missing. Edna has been showing signs of dementia and has apparently just wandered off into the woods surrounding her property. Kaye and Sam are faced with reporting to the police and organizing a search. Kaye has been estranged from her mother for a while. Nothing big. No blow up fights. Just the process of growing apart from her parent while living her life. Being next to Sam for the duration shows that process ongoing between them, as well. Sam is living a different life than Kaye had assumed. When Edna eventually returns of her own accord, the strain is evident. Edna has trouble recognizing her offspring, failing to call them by their names occasionally. She distrusts them. As Kaye and Sam try to piece together what Edna has been up to, strange sounds and movements start to manifest in Edna's house. Parts of the house seem to be actively decaying. So does Edna. She attempts to destroy her memories of her family, to Kaye's horror. Kaye is prompted to look into a residential home for her mother, though Sam disagrees and offers to stay with Edna going forward. Edna likes neither idea. The very thought sends her into a downward spiral. And as she goes, so goes her house. Sam becomes lost while investigating the house's noises and movements, while Kaye attempts to soothe her mother as she becomes more violent and self-destructive...

Relic is a slow burn horror movie. Like a lot of slow burn horror movies, it adopts the strategy of a Gothic novel, circling around its central horror in order to come at it at oblique angles. It has a slow progression of peeling away its layers, onion like, with dark secrets elided with flashes of horror. It mostly takes its time to reveal its secrets while masquerading as a dire drama about dementia. It has the slow inevitability of the tide, swelling to a pile-driver of a last act.


Relic (2020)

The advantage of this approach is that it invites the viewer to see the main characters of the film as people first and foremost rather than as heroes or final girls or chum. It gets the audience invested in these characters before it embarks on testing them to destruction. Director Natalie Erika James, making her first feature film, is singularly fortunate in her cast. This is basically a three character drama and she's got three stellar actors in Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcoate, and Robyn Nevins. There's not one false note delivered by any of them. When at the end of the film, Kaye has to make a heart-wrenching decision regarding her mother, Emily Mortimer has already laid the groundwork to sell that moment. The scene where she tours the retirement home and its aftermath makes her decision at the end of the film entirely credible.


Relic (2020)

Many of the film's darker notes are delivered as completely mundane things: The lack of awareness in one's surroundings. The inability to remember that one has a bath running or a meal cooking. The demands of caring for a person who doesn't recognize you. Continence. If this film was composed only of such moments, it would still be pretty good. It would still be a troubling drama. The filmmakers have other ideas, though.


Relic (2020)

Relic's big horror idea is to literalize the concept of dementia as an actual force. It has envisioned this personification both as a creeping decay that resembles black mold, slowly overtaking Edna's house, and as a creeping decay taking over Edna herself. In Edna's case, she sports odd bruises that she can't explain, and late in the film, she tries to carve them away, revealing the core of dementia beneath her skin. This embodiment of concept is reminiscent of Under the Skin, in which a monster wears a human suit and slowly peels it away at the end of the movie. There's a strong element of body horror in this film's final act, and like other body horror movies, it frames its permutations as a contagion, one passed down from generation to generation. The final frame of the film reminds me a bit of the psychoplasmic pimples on Candace Carweth in the last scene in The Brood. Dementia runs in families. It's inheritable. And this film uses this fact to stick the knife in and twist it on the way out. The decay of the house is metaphorical as well as literal, if we remember that "house" is also "family" (cue Edgar Allan Poe's House of Usher...)


Relic (2020)

Most of this film is literally dark. Much of it is set in dark spaces while even spaces that are lit are grim and unhappy. It has a muted, cold color palette that drains it of anything like happiness or fun. It's a horror movie, true, but it's not a particularly Halloween-y horror movie. It's unlikely to play at teenage sleepover parties or however nascent horror fans consume horror movies. There's no reason it should. It's not that kind of movie, after all. Young people might not relate to the horrors in this film, might think these horrors don't pertain to them. If this is so, they're in for a grim awakening somewhere down the line...







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