J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Sundance ’20: Relic

Horror movies are usually about monsters, but in real life, nothing is scarier than family. That is particularly and tragically so when age and disease turn family members into strangers. Kay assumes her mother is succumbing to a conventional form of dementia, but there are uncanny forces at work in Natalie Erika James’ Relic, which screened during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Kay and her daughter Sam have rushed out to her mother’s home, after her neighbors called with their concerns. Old Edna has not been seen for days and she does answer their calls. It turns out she is legitimately missing rather than dead or incapacitated inside. In fact, she will suddenly turn up again, apparently oblivious to all the fuss she caused. That should be all fine and good, but Edna is acting a little weird. After her reappearance, she exhibits a bit of a mean streak. She also says some slightly unsettling things. In fact, some of her crazy talk suggests there is some sort of malevolent supernatural business going on in the house, which could well be the case, given the fact this is a horror movie.

In fact, the house itself turns out to be a spectacular work of genre set and production design, but it would be spoilery to explain how. In any event, Relic is quite thematically and stylistically compatible with James’ impressive short film Creswick, so hopefully some programmers will have the vision and latitude to pair them together. Clearly, both films demonstrate James talent for crafty a moody horror atmosphere, as well as her interest in telling more ambitious stories through the genre.

Robyn Nevin’s performance as Edna is pretty harrowing, in more ways than one. As a result, it is easy to sympathize and identify with the grounded and believable work of Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote, as Kayn and Sam, respectively. Much of the attention Relic has garnered focused on Nevin, but the film also deserves credit for featuring Down Syndrome actor Chris Bunton as Jamie, the neighbor’s son, and portraying his friendship with Sam in such relaxed, matter-of-fact terms. We totally believe they are old pals, which is cool.

Horror fans need to stay patient with this one. The first half of Relic feels pretty standard-issue, but it is really setting up a wild turn around the halfway mark. It turns into something really scary and also some legitimately cool cinema craftmanship. It is definitely worth the time investment. Highly recommended for horror fans, Relic is sure to be selected by numerous genre festivals after screening during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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