RELIC (2020) maintains a creepy tone… but it’s not enough

Directed and co-written by Natalie Ericka James, Relic follows a mother, daughter and grandmother who are haunted by an all-consuming manifestation of dementia, threatening to tear them apart.

One thing I love about Natalie Erika James’ direction is that she sticks to a much more subtle atmospheric approach to horror. There is a creepy and unsettling tone looming over the entire film that never once lets up. Even during the simplest of dialogue scenes, there is this constant feeling of dread and despair that keeps you locked in to the tension that continues to build. This creepiness is what gives the film its identity and plays into the idea of dementia creeping into this family’s life, but unfortunately creepy doesn’t mean scary.

I love the approach to go for a more subtle atmospheric horror, however, I don’t feel like it was utilised that well throughout the film. There are a small handful of moments that are genuinely haunting, but the majority of the moments designed to take the step up from creepy to terrifying don’t really work. I understand the thematic and quite literal connection in how dementia plays into the horror but I don’t feel it’s implemented strongly enough here. It may work for a number of people, but I just didn’t respond to it in a way that felt satisfyingly scary.

That being said, Charlie Sarroff’s cinematography adds to the overall creepiness really well. There are a number of scenes where the composition leads you to look into the background, off to the side or even in the foreground where some hidden details are waiting to be spotted. It’s not a new technique but it’s one that is executed well here. In terms of the pacing, it features a really slow build over the course of the film, which works for slowly ramping up the tension. However, much of the horror not hitting it makes the movie feel like it’s dragging for over two hours when it’s only an hour and a half.

The film is led by strong performances from both Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote who display a great mother-daughter relationship that is tested throughout the film. They both sell the horror really well and each have a number of really compelling scenes, but overall I didn’t find myself caring about either character as much as I hoped I would. There’s also Robyn Nevin who is good for the majority of her scenes as the grandmother, however some of her dialogue felt quite forced and unnatural for some reason. Not sure if it was the writing or her delivery but it felt a little off sometimes. A similar thing can also be said about some of the dialogue as a whole.

In the end, Relic is a decent horror film with a consistently creepy tone that could have been a great film had some of the scares really paid off. Good performances from Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote enhance a number of scenes. Being the directorial debut for Natalie Erika James, the young director shows a lot of promise going forward.

5.8/10

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