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COVID-19 impacted the number of movies released in 2020, but the horror genre didn't seem to really suffer from it. Quality will always be subjective, but in my opinion, this year has examples at every point of the spectrum. I've witnessed some shockingly awful horror flicks (Fantasy Island, The Grudge, The Turning, You Should Have Left), a few "wasted potential" examples (Gretel & Hansel, The Rental, The New Mutants), some pretty decent ones (Underwater, Antebellum, Come Play), and more than just a couple of incredible films, some might even end up in my Top10 of the year (The Invisible Man, The Lodge). I didn't know much about Relic, but its premise got me interested.
This is Natalie Erika James' directorial debut, as well as her first feature-length screenplay, co-written with the also first-timer Christian White. Boasting a relatively unknown cast (to me, at least), I can't hide my surprise regarding how much I enjoy this film. Ambiguous horror movies with underlying themes are far from being an audience-favorite subgenre, much on the contrary. Usually, this type of film possesses traits that a regular moviegoer doesn't really look forward to: a slow pace, a series of suspenseful sequences that don't lead to the generic jumpscare, and finally, an ending that apparently might miss some sort of explanation, leaving the audience feeling underwhelmed.
Well, guess what? I love this subgenre, especially when it really hits me in the heart. It has all the ingredients above that I know will make most people think "this didn't make any sense, it's so boring". Many viewers will expect just another spooky, supernatural, psychological horror flick, and disappointment will meet them at the end. However, its narrative carries so much more than what's on the surface, and honestly, this is made clear pretty early in the movie. At its core, Relic is quite a realistic depiction of what happens to the older members of some families (unfortunately, more than what it should be), and it approaches extremely sensitive themes such as dementia and the abandonment of old people in nursing homes.
Natalie and Christian's screenplay doesn't hide from delivering a few messages concerning these two topics. Dementia is a terrible disease that, amongst other things, makes people lose what makes them unique, what makes them human, and forget who they truly are. If our parents take care of us throughout our young life, it's only fitting that we take care of them when/if they begin to fail to do so themselves. Not only should we do this because they already did the same for us when we were young, but also due to the possibility that our descendants might have to do the same when we grow old. It's a variation of the known circle of life.
Love should always be present, no matter the circumstances. A little piece of my personal life: my grandfather wasn't quite there at the end. He gradually became unable to drive, walk, and eventually speak. I chose to not see him as much as I did in his last few weeks, simply because I didn't want to remember him as someone he wasn't. My memory of him is intact with the best moments I've spent with him, and not that depressing phase at a nursing home, just laying in bed, waiting for his time to leave our world... It's a small portion of my life that I share with you, so you understand how Relic can impact so many viewers if people give it a legitimate chance with adequate expectations.
The acting is phenomenal across the board. Robyn Nevin can be scary as the grandmother Edna, but in the end, she's the emotional trigger that made me tear up. There are little nuances in her expressions that elevate her overall performance. Emily Mortimer is also outstanding as the mom, Kay, who has to go through all stages in dealing with a parent with dementia. From rejection and separation to acceptance and unconditional love, Kay is the character that gets a more significant focus. Bella Heathcote might have less screentime than the other two, but she's also fantastic as Sam, particularly in the horror sequences. Nevertheless, it's precisely this last point that hurts the film.
The house's atmosphere is incredibly suspenseful, but the third act brings out an unexpected level of horror, which I believe to be exaggerated. The balance between horror and family drama was excellent throughout the first two acts, except for short periods here and there, but the last twenty minutes go through such an over-the-top, eerie, extremely fictional path that ultimately ruins that near-perfect balance. It's almost like the producers came in and said "we need more horror", so they filmed a bunch of crazy, mind-bending, physics-defying scenes. This movie didn't need any of that, and it should have stuck with the intriguing drama instead of forcing the disturbing horror.
Technically, Charlie Sarroff's camera work is impeccable. With the help of Denise Haratzi and Sean Lahiff's editing, long takes strongly improve the build-up to the scary sequences, generating exceptional levels of tension and suspense. Brian Reitzell's score is interesting, but there's a point in the film where it gets a bit awkward, having in mind the scene taking place, but it doesn't hurt his overall work. Great pacing control, adequate runtime, and a beautiful, heartfelt, relevant ending that, unfortunately, some viewers won't be able to see past its apparently underwhelming climax.
All in all, Relic is one of those typical horror movies that will divide critics and audiences all around the world. This time, only false expectations can lead to disappointment. Natalie Erika James' directorial debut is far from being a generic horror flick, but a family drama with a very sensitive matter at its core. With the help of the also debutant Christian White, both deliver an exceptionally well-written, genuinely sad yet realistic story about dementia and how old people are treated once they can't live by themselves anymore. A remarkably ambiguous narrative filled with underlying themes leads to an emotionally powerful ending if the viewer is able to understand the implicit messages spread across the runtime. Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, and Bella Heathcote all deliver exceptional performances. Technically, the lingering cinematography plus seamless editing create an extraordinarily suspenseful environment. However, the third act dives into horror way too much, holding unnecessary sequences that only ruin the film's tone, raising questions that don't belong in the movie. Still, I sincerely recommend it to anyone who enjoys this type of film, but please manage your expectations as fair as possible.