Let’s make this clear right from the beginning: Relic is a horror movie. Period.
I need to say that because Relic is exactly the type of movie some like to tag with the dreadful “elevated horror” moniker. It’s a character-driven story, one that builds dread through emotions instead of jumpscares or monsters.
But here’s the thing: It has all those things too.
Written by first time director Natalie Erika James and her co-writer Christain White, Relic follows three generations of Australian women wrestling with the matriarch’s dementia. When her elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevins) goes missing, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) come to investigate. Despite disturbing messages written on sticky notes and the occasional creepy sound in the walls, Edna returns home days later, perfectly fine except for a bruise on her chest. But as the women weigh options for moving forward, including a nursing home or Sam coming to live with her, they realize that Edna is not the person she used to be.
You can see how that premise appeals to the “elevated horror” bunch. The film recalls some of the first movies to receive that label, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows from 2014 and Ari Aster’s Hereditary from 2018 (also David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out from 2016, but that is a very bad movie that has been blessedly forgotten). These movies use horror to tell very human stories because horror is the one genre that can capture the feelings they want to convey. They are horror movies because they make use of horror tropes.
Take one of the most effective scenes in Relic. As Kay prepares Edna for sleep, and the older woman insists that she hears someone under her bed. When Kay gets down to look, we know what to expect: either something will shoot out at Kay, or nothing will happen until Kay gets up again. But instead of following the strict set-up/pay off model of a bed scare, James gives the moment time to play out. The camera cuts several times between Kay’s increasingly irritated face as she tries to make sense of the pile she finds under the bed and to Edna’s blank expression. We become less scared about what’s going to lunge toward Kay and more worried about the women’s deteriorating mental states. But then the scene does end with a traditional jump scare fake-out when a book drops from the bed and startles Kay (and us viewers).
As the construction of that scene shows, James has already mastered the fundamentals of her genre. She only goes wrong with a few dream sequences involving images of rotting corpses and an abandoned cabin. While sound in concept, these scenes often resort to shaky camera techniques and too literal imagery, more at home in a 90s grunge video than the accomplished film we’re watching.
James is far more effective with the way she captures Kay and Sam’s growing dread. She layers Brian Reitzell’s drowning score throughout the film, giving even mundane activities a sense of menace. The movie opens with a living room lit only by the methodical blinking Christmas lights, a repeated visual motif. The methodical fading in and out within a scene mirrors Edna’s consciousness, rising into recognition at one moment and slipping out the next.
Most impressively, James and White never let the horror of the experience erase the characters’ humanity. In fact, one supports the other. As the disease takes hold of Edna, she loses her sense of self and becomes something other. But she’s never a monster, even when she attacks Sam for something as petty as a piece of jewelry. Instead, she’s a victim. Moreover, the film puts us in the edges of both Kay and Sam’s fraying minds to remind us that they too will be victimized in the same way. Kay and Sam are not scared of Edna as much as they are what’s happening to her, a distinction that allows the film to be genuinely terrifying and genuinely moving in its final moments.
That humanity drives the horror, making it exceptional and character-driven and very scary horror, but never elevated horror.