The year’s most frightening movie moment is a metaphor inside a metaphor. Deep into the new horror film Relic, Sam (Bella Heathcote) gets lost in an intricate labyrinth of corridors. One second, she’s walking around the house where she and her mother Kay (Emily Mortimer) care for her deteriorating mother Edna (Robyn Nevin), and the next, she has no idea where she is. The interiors all look familiar, but they keep moving. When she turns around, there’s a wall that wasn’t there before, and then again, like a dog following her. The ceiling and floor are getting closer together. Her surroundings want to squeeze the life out of her. Everything’s closing in.
“The labyrinth came from a documentary I’d seen about a man with Alzheimer’s, who described it as feeling like you’re lost in your own home,” writer-director Natalie Erika James tells Decider over the phone from her home in Australia. “I’d never heard something so unsettling. That stuck with me, the idea that something familiar can become completely unrecognizable to you.”
Relic takes mentally degenerative conditions as the source of its terror, specifically in regard to the way they render what we know and love frightening and alien. The film begins with two generations of women coming to tend to their elder, as Edna’s been reported to have wandered off into the nearby woods with her faculties fading. In time, her affliction will be revealed as something stranger and darker, stringing a connecting thread between the phantasmagorical decay of the nightmare playing out onscreen and the tragic yet banal decay of Alzheimer’s in real life. And for Sam, in the film’s most affecting sequence, one facet of this experience — walking into a room only to have completely forgotten why — takes a chilling physical form. It’s a jewel of pure fear, and a suggestion that what’s draining her grandmother could be passed down through the family.
Naturally, James has a personal stake in a story so intimately steeped in the dynamics of grieving mothers and daughters. The rookie filmmaker drew from her own past, first for a short film about a girl looking after her unwell father, which acted as a proof-of-concept for her course-shifting debut feature. “The early script was based on my own experiences with my grandmother, so the first draft of the feature was always going to be a grandmother character,” she says. “[When we made] the short film, we shifted to father-daughter because I had myself gone through a period of time in my late teens when I lived with my father, who’d been quite ill. I was drawing on that experience, the unsettling nature of when you become the caretaker they once were.”
She was haunted by “that first moment of having to confront your parent’s mortality, the role-reversal between parent and child.” The film depicts this painful process twice over, first as Kay goes through the frustrating and taxing work of watching her mother slip away, and then as Sam provides support to Kay while recognizing her mom’s human frailty for the first time. “When you start to grapple with and process your grandparents’ mortality, then you think about your parents and what you’ll go through, and then your own mortality,” James explains. “It’s a multi-level existential horror. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and it’s kept me up. I think about what’s to come for my mother, for myself. It’s something to live with.”
As a filmmaker, she set out to crank that low-burning dread up to a higher heat, employing cinematic affect to make figurative anxieties lethal and real. What would otherwise be an invisible advancement of the disorder manifests here as a spreading black spot, an unholy mark of the doomed that ultimately warps Edna into a mutated husk of herself. James focused on “the betrayal you feel when someone you love isn’t acting like themselves,” turning the typical patient’s tendency to unexpectedly snap at those around them into fits of demonic possession. “The film is trying to take the emotional truth of that experience and frame it in a genre context, then bring it to its most extreme end,” she says.
James remembers her grandmother’s degeneration as being “all quite gradual,” but certain elements of her sad decline lend themselves to this grim sensationalizing. “With my grandmother, the earliest signs were forgetfulness, circular conversations. She had a tendency to hoard things that were of use, which is evident in the film — she has her storage room that later spills into the labyrinth. She was losing so much, in terms of memory and parts of yourself, that I interpreted that habit as a desire to hold on to whatever you can. I found that heartbreaking.”
The heartbreak is a crucial part of the point, the vital counterbalance that maintains the “emotional truth” that James mentioned. Anyone who’s watched a family member lose this sense of themselves knows that this ordeal draws out a contradictory swirl of feelings, with a guilty resentment often battling the natural instinct to nurture. James diverges from horror’s status quo in crafting an antagonist that not only commands the sympathy of the audience, but the pity of the other characters.
The final act upends convention by letting the conflict recede, as Kay and Sam stop looking on the “monster” as something to be feared, and see it instead as a helpless soul in need of a hand. “From the get-go, we wanted this creature we called The Other to have a sense of otherworldliness, while at the same time feeling very human,” James says. “A person at the end of their life, who’s wasted away, still has their humanity. It was important to us that we captured that fragility and vulnerability.”
These final scenes shift gears from the usual ambient menace of horror to a disarmingly poignant register, culminating in what will surely be the most striking final shot of the year. James fostered a feeling of closeness on set by largely eschewing CGI for practical special effects, with an estimated 70% of SFX shots achieved without computers. The effects department designed slip-on pads with prosthetics already on them to save on hours in the makeup chair, and a stunt double made Edna spry enough for the more kinetic aspects of her possession. “We even employed an animatronic element for The Other,” she says, citing David Cronenberg’s Videodrome as a longtime favorite that inspired her with its visions of distending organic flesh.
It all amounts to an uncommonly humane approach to genre filmmaking, raising the ante on the recent jag of familial horror that’s included The Babadook and Hereditary. These films hinge on the tension between love and the taxing emotional toll it can exact, and James’s film gets cozier with that uncomfortable negotiation than the superficially similar works preceding her. She speaks with clear eyes about Sam, her de facto surrogate in the film. “She’s at an aimless phase of life, and that’s part of the reason she’s mired in a resentment towards her mother for not caring for her grandmother enough,” she says. “That kind of selflessness is kind of steeped in other forces. It’s complicated, but always with love at the heart of it.” Sam makes it out of the labyrinth, but she’s far from free.
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevassse) is a film and television critic living in Brooklyn. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Nylon, Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vox, and plenty of other semi-reputable publications. His favorite film is Boogie Nights.
The post ‘Relic’ Writer/Director Natalie Erika James On The “Multi-Level Existential Horror” Of Alzheimer’s Disease appeared first on Decider.