The best horror is rooted in the real fears we have. In Australian filmmaker Natalie Erika James' debut Relic, there is a moment that encapsulates this perfectly. The matriarch of the film, a confused elderly woman (Robyn Nevin) asks 'Where is everyone?" as she is next to her daughter (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter (Bella Heathcote). It is a heartbreaking moment of dementia that feels all too real. Sure, Relic is mostly a haunted-house film but it is punctuated by a sense of regret and loss. The haunted house is both external and internal here.
Co-written by James and Christian White, Relic is rich with character depth and subtle details. James is deft at creating dread from the opening moments and sustaining it right to the final crushing moments. Rooted in three great female performances, the film holds a surprising amount of power even when its scares occasionally feel routine.
Kay (Mortimer) gets a call that her mother has gone missing. She and her daughter Sam (Heathcote) go to try and find her. Edna (Nevin) eventually shows up but hasn't a clue where she went, or at least is not willing to say. We learn that Edna has been forgetful as of late, even forgetting a neighborhood boy is locked away in her house. We also learn she thinks someone is in the house with her.
What progresses is a slow burn but one that is consistently riveting. This is largely due to the wonderful performances here. Relic doesn't feel the need to throw in a jump scare every 10 minutes and is content playing out more like a family drama most of the time. Thanks to Charlie Sarroff's cinematography, there is some unsettling imagery throughout that will satisfy more casual horror fans. True horror fans will enjoy the build to an intense climax as the house turns into an endless maze of hallways. The film owes a great deal to Mark Danielewski's amazing novel House of Leaves that concerns a family with a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside. The finale of this film seems heavily inspired by a sequence in that book but thanks to the work done with the character building, it doesn't feel like a cheap cribbing. Metaphorical horror this concerned with its theme of memory and clarity of the mind will not be for everyone. Good, adult horror like this shouldn't be overlooked.