(director/writer: Natalie Erika James; screenwriter: Christian White; cinematographer: Charlie Sarroff; editors: Denise Haratzis, Sean Lahiff; music: Brian Reitzell; cast: Emily Mortimer (Kay), Bella Heathcote (Sam), Robyn Nevin (Edna), Chris Bunton (kid with Down syndrome); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker; Carver Films; 2020-Australia/USA)

“The well-crafted film is original, disturbing and subtle.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The directorial debut of Japanese Australian filmmaker Natalie Erika James is this slow-burner horror pic. The movie is a chilling female ghost story about the travails of aging, losing a loved one and dealing with dementia. It tells of a family home where there’s a sinister presence that three generations of women must deal with.The well-crafted film is original, disturbing and subtle. It’s tenderly and observantly co-written by James and Christian White. The high-concept horror film is favorably complemented with edgy background music from Brian Reitzell and mesmerizing performances by its three stars: Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote and Australian stage veteran Robyn Nevin.

The film was inspired by the director’s experience with a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s.

The domestic gothic genre film was a hit at Sundance, where it was compared favorably to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, also shown at Sundance and also an Australian scare film.

The local police inform Kay (Emily Mortimer) that her elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) is missing and neighbors have not seen her lately. Thereby Kay and her college-age daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive from Melbourne to her stately country house in a wooded area of regional Victoria. They find the place empty with furniture and items left in disarray, food left out for a pet that’s been dead for years and odd post-it notes all over the place with reminders for the simplest tasks. Kay and Sam decide to stay in the house while the police search for Edna. While there, they experience strange goings-on in the dimly lit rooms that makes them suspect there might be foul play or some kind of odd presence that might offer a possible explanation for her disappearance.

Surprisingly Edna suddenly shows up but when questioned is vague about where she’s been. A doctor’s exam reveals no physical issues from her disappearance beyond a large black bruise on her chest, for which she has no explanation. The doctor thereby instructs her daughter not to leave her disorientated mother alone in the house for a few days.

Relic takes its time getting to the crowd-pleasing horror part, but when it does it delivers the goods and excites the viewer’s imagination with a stunning conclusion.

This is a superior horror film that gives you some realistic scares, as it takes you through a terrifying look at a crumbling old house (with a hidden hallway covered in clutter) and a mind unraveling from disease.