Slow burn horror stories are not a new thing. Even before Roman Polanski brought the idea to the mainstream with Rosemary’s Baby, there were films like Diabolique and short stories such as The Tell Tale Heart proved the genre did not have to be a series of blood curdling screams and violent deaths. Still, there has been an increase in more methodical scary movies. Relic is a patient horror movie that has a wonderful premise. It is regrettable that more often than not, it ends up taking the easy way out.
Directed by Natalie Erika James, Relic is a carefully paced horror movie that is reminiscent of other films that are more about atmosphere and story. After Ednar disappears, her daughter and granddaughter come looking for her. When she suddenly returns, the three generations of women are forced to deal with conflicting feelings.
James along with writing partner Christian White have crafted an engaging story. The plot immediately intrigues the audience. Where did Edna go and why has she come back? Relic is a prime example of the importance of a strong opening. The movie draws the audience within the opening seconds. There are some tropes to be sure, but they are done to maximum effect.
The strong scripting continues on to the Edna, Kay, and Sam. The three women are more than just the centerpiece of the movie. They push the story forward and get across the themes of the movie. Relic is not just a standard scary story. The film is powerful allegory about age and dementia. This is where the work of James and White really stands out. The film is all about the subtleties. A seemingly innocuous comment here and a furtive glance there the only clues as to what message the movie is trying to get across. Those looking for easy answers will not be impressed by the movie.
Relic also does a great job of creating an oppressive atmosphere. This is very important in this type of movie. When there are not the visceral moments to draw the audience in, the smaller details become much more important. It is during these times this type of film engages the audience. James does a great job of keeping the perfect tone for the story she is trying to tell.
The performances from the three leads also enhance the storytelling. Each character gives a window in to what is happening. Edna is belligerent to the point to where she almost refuses to accept there is a problem, Kay is worried, frustrated, and sad, and Sam is just happy to have her grandmother back. It is an interesting way to tell a story. It is not so much about a series of actions or even one event. The reactions and attitudes of the women tell the audience everything they need to know.
It is unfortunate, that after doing so much so well, Relic seems to be content to be so open ended. What can be a hard look at dementia is somewhat devalued by the ending. It is inspired to tell a story about a person succumbing to the disease in the guise of horror movie. It is an entirely other thing to end on a silly twist ending that does not really tie in to the rest of the movie. (It is also medically inaccurate, but that is a nitpick.)
Relic is a different kind of horror movie. Instead of just settling for supernatural scares, the film is an excellent allegory that serves up real scares. The performances are fantastic and add to the story. Unfortunately, director Natalie Erika James forgoes the nuanced storytelling and ends on with a very standard ending. Still, this will be one of the most unique movies of the year.