Relic (2020)

*. Comparisons between Relic and The Babadook were made immediately, and for obvious reasons. But not so much because they were both written and directed by Australian women in their feature debuts, expanding on previous short films — Monster in the case of The Babadook, Creswick in the case of Relic (which gives some idea, by the way, of how long it takes a good idea to gestate, and how much time in development it takes for a feature to come about.)
*. Instead, I’d say the most obvious comparison is thematic. In both films the monsters are real, in so far as they are projections of emotional states. In The Babadook the monster is a single mother afraid of the impact she’s having on her kid. In Relic it’s now the adult child who is anxious over her failures, this time to properly care for her mother, who is slipping into dementia while living in a ginormous house out in the middle of nowhere that can only be arrived at by overhead car shot. Why is she living here alone? Because this is a horror movie. Or at least is dressed that way.
*. The allegory here isn’t subtle. Edna, the mother, is turning into something alien. In visual terms a monster. At the end she will be peeled of her mortal coil and enter a second childhood, now a newborn, no longer a mom but a shrunken mummy. And the granddaughter will realize that this is the same duty she will be pressed into, perhaps sooner than she expects, with her mother.
*. As I said in my notes on The Visit, old people are scary.  They’ve been a source of discomfort since time immemorial You never know what they’re going to say or do, and their bodies are often frightening and/or disgusting. Horror movies have long played this up, and they go to the well again here with Edna’s incontinence and bruising. But Natalie Erika James doesn’t leave it at that. The real horror isn’t what’s happening to Edna but what it’s doing to Kay.
*. This is one of those movies where there was a huge gap between critical and audience scores. Why? In part because critics are more impressed by message movies as it gives them something to write about. The paying crowd don’t like messages much at all, even ones, like this, that are nearly universal in their impact. And the fact is that while James does the scary stuff reasonably well, much of the horror seems divorced from the real point of the movie. I mean, what was up with Sam scrambling around in the walls of the house, seemingly trapped in another dimension? And why, when Kay sees something strange underneath Edna’s bed, does she get up and leave without investigating further?
*. Perhaps it’s just me, but I thought James missed an easy trick in not playing up the horror of the nursing home that Kay visits. Wouldn’t that be a scarier place than the haunted house? It must be a home full of angry ghosts.
*. I don’t like the now interminable stretch of production company icons that precede the titles in today’s movies any more than you, but the Gozie AGBO one really is impressive. Hats off to those guys.
*. I’m also not a big fan of critical clichés, and the DVD box comes with this one on the cover: Relic “turns the haunted house story on its head.” Reviewers are always saying this. And they don’t even give the reviewer’s name this time, just the website. Which turned out to be weird since the review of Relic on by Sheila O’Malley, which is actually quite perceptive, doesn’t say this. At least I didn’t see it. I guess it turns up somewhere else on the site. Or maybe it was just floating in the ether.
*. But leaving the author of the review aside, does Relic turn the haunted house genre on its head? Assuming that means it reverses expectations or conventions in some way I don’t think it does. It’s a good twist on the old story, but no more transgressive than The Haunting.
*. Solid performances, though Robyn Nevin as Edna didn’t carry enough of a sense of threat. Shot much too dark throughout, which made the scenes that play on darkness less effective since they don’t contrast with anything else in the picture. Not to mention the fact that it’s hard to see anything.
*. OK, maybe it’s one that’s more for the critics, or just the adults in the room. This isn’t The Conjuring. But it works, and even manages to end on a note of real pathos. It’s not a slow burn so much as a no burn, but that’s by design. The point isn’t horror but healing.

34 thoughts on “Relic (2020)

  1. Alex Good

    Here’s the Gozi-AGBO logo I mentioned. It may seem like just a jumble of different stuff, but I think it plays well together. They put together a piece that’s creative, looks neat, and has a visual rhythm.

  2. fragglerocking

    Hmm, well I can’t see a thing in the picture you put at the top, so I get what you say about the darkness in the movie. As I’m now scary-old I’ll give this a miss and carry on in ignorant bliss!

    1. Alex Good

      That’s exactly what I’m talking about! I screen-captured three or four pictures from this movie and that picture at the top was the only one that showed anything! The others were darker than it so I decided I couldn’t use them.
      At least I can turn on subtitles for dialogue I can’t hear . . .

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Actually, I watch everything with subtitles now. I don’t blame my hearing (though I suppose I could fly to Gateshead to get that checked), so much as the way actors don’t speak clearly and the lousy sound in most pictures.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        Sigh. How do you think this pull quote confusion is happening? They normally get supplied some time before the review is written….maybe Ebert’s site switched reviewer….

      2. Alex Good Post author

        Wait . . . the pull quote is supplied before the review is written? How is that possible? I’ve written for newspapers for over twenty years and never had a quote taken from something I’ve written before it was published.

      3. tensecondsfromnow

        PR companies request a rating and pull quite so they can create publicity material in advance. I guess it’s for a select few of esteemed critics, the best of the best, the creme de la creme. You’ve seriously never heard of this practice?

      4. Alex Good Post author

        But the review has still been written, right? I mean, the publicists don’t just call up and ask for the reviewer to write some early bumf for them to use in the promotional campaign do they?

      5. tensecondsfromnow

        No, pull quotes are requested long before the review is written or published. Months, usually. So you have to remember to include your pull quote in the review.

      6. tensecondsfromnow

        It’s thriving, I think you’re thinking of newspapers and magazines. The cost of printing actually just slows the process down. Online is the way to go…and there’s no lack of integrity about tipping off the PR that they’re getting a great review. Everyone wins in that situation. have you contacted Werner Orland directly to see if he can use your reviews? Is King John on Linkedin?

      7. Alex Good Post author

        Warner Oland. *sigh* After all I’ve done to make his name better known . . .

        It seems to me that this practice leads to a total loss of integrity. The online reviewer now writes to spec, basically just pitching reviews to PR departments in order to get their site’s name included in advertising material. Sure I suppose you could write the odd critical review to make things look good, but basically you’d just be writing ad copy.

      8. tensecondsfromnow

        So there’s 100 films that are coming out. You chose the ten that you think might be good. After watching them, you choose the two that are actually good. The supplier gets a pull quote in return for access so that they don’t have to make up paper and print ads WOR. The review includes that initial reaction. Reviews are never pitched, they are published sight unseen, with no access the PR’s; only the editor knows what text must be preserved. It’s the same for pretty much every film and book and tv show and it’s been going on since the days of Charlie Chan. Have you got a better idea?

      9. Alex Good Post author

        Well, I can only say that’s never the way I’ve done it. I don’t think there should be that close a relationship between editorial and advertising.

      10. tensecondsfromnow

        Editorial and advertising are both part of what makes a publication tick. At the end of the day, everyone wins. Better access, more time to write a considered piece, you can always adjust the quote up or down, and the film’s publicity promotes the publication too, raising awareness all round. Posters have had pull quotes since silent days, it’s not part of the industry that will be rethought anytime soon. It works.

        I take it you didn’t get any interest in your Critters erotica/ fan fiction? Warner Oland’s fan-club not taking on new members?

      11. Alex Good Post author

        Pull quotes have always been used in advertising, and I’ve had things I’ve written appear in publicity and on books. But what you’re describing is more of an active partnership and I’m not as keen on this. It sounds like more of a new paradigm and I don’t see how it results in anything other than criticism just being absorbed by the entertainment-industrial complex. I’m more of an idealist and I see criticism as separated entirely from that side of the business. Basically, if I bring attention to something I think is good that’s fine, but it’s not my job to sell your book/movie. The new paradigm is more in tune with the digital economy where you’re getting paid for referrals. Instead of being a critic the aspiration is to become an influencer, which is just a sort of pitchman for products.

        Critters erotica got absorbed by the whole “furry” fetish so I got out of it.

      12. tensecondsfromnow

        ‘Basically, if I bring attention to something I think is good that’s fine, but it’s not my job to sell your book/movie.’

        Yup, that’s how it works for pretty much everyone other than Tony Lane. I’m not pitching, I’m not paid to pubish anything, I’m not an influencer, i don’t run ads. I’m a critic. I don’t have to get involved with anything I don’t want to. And I don’t have to say anything other than what I want to say. Morality is a line we draw under our own behaviour; everyone picks the level they’re happy to work at. If I waited until films were out to run reviews, I’d not have an audience, so access, as far in advance as possible, is helpful. So far I’ve not been absorbed into Oliver Stone’s entertainment-industrial complex, but maybe I’m not the best judge.

        I take it the Lep laid a few smackers on you in return for positive press?

      13. Alex Good Post author

        Well you’d still have an audience if you didn’t just reviews new releases. Just a slightly different one. Though maybe not so different online.

        I think the Internet in general has led to criticism being more conformist and upbeat. It just pushes things in that direction. There’s a reason Amazon bought Goodreads while Rotten Tomatoes is run by Fandango, an online box office that sells movie tickets. Online speech is co-opted by capital. I actually wrote about this in a book review a few years back.

        The Lep threw a cold coin my way but it magically disappeared soon after he left. I suppose I got off lucky.

      14. tensecondsfromnow

        I take your point about the internet. But I don’t think indifference is to blame. It’s just change. People used to pay for printed matter, which is now out of date from the moment it’s printed. Films in particular are often impossible to see in advance for magazine reviews, so why put anything at all on paper? So right now there’s a land-rush of internet critics to replace the unread old fogeys at collapsing papers like Roby Collins or Mike Commode. Why should the new critics all sing from the same hymmsheet? Why should they all toe the same line? Just because I have access to films from Disney or Warners doesn’t make me a lobotomised shill, that’s only in the eyes of those who can’t or won’t make the same leap. If people don’t like RT because they reduce a film’s reputation to a number, that’s on the reader; it’s entirely up to the reader how much information to consume, but as an aggregator, RT is a useful guide to what people say about a film. These things are usually linked at a corporate level anyway, so unless there’s obvious bias being shown, there’s no point in clutching our pearls about them. Like you, I review what I want, when I want to, and say what I want. What’s the problem?

      15. Alex Good Post author

        One problem is that the aggregator, and the aggregate score, replaces individual responses and melts everything down to a single score that’s usually in the mushy middle somewhere, and whose only purpose (the aggregate score) is commercial as opposed to any other purpose that critical writing might serve. I know you say that’s on the reader, but a lot of things are on the reader and in general (and the general is what counts) they aren’t reading. What’s more important, the individual review or the aggregate score? The individual review is just another data point to be fed into the algorithm, no better or worse than any other. In the hive mind it’s all just information. Half the reviews out there could be bots and who would know?

        I’m also not a big fan of the cult of immediacy. Kermode (who actually loves the Internet) talks a bit about this in a chapter in one of his books about being “First, but wrong.” Hot takes are fine for what they are, but what they are is almost always inferior to a more considered judgment that has taken some time. Plus the immediacy tends to just be hype. Scores on IMDb tend to peak on the week of release and just keep going down as the glow of the latest bright shiny thing wears off.

        Of course there are strong individual voices still out there, but the medium at least influences the message and the medium doesn’t care about expertise or critical judgment or the quality of your writing. It wants clicks.

      16. tensecondsfromnow

        Fair enough; some people only look at the RT numbers. But RT gives you access to a wide variety of reviews, and the reader can chose which to read. Very hard to imagine bot reviews on RT, the qualification process to be an RT reviewer wouldn’t allow that. I’m not saying it’s a perfect system, but it’s what we got. It’s gummed up with ancient paper journalists, and like the Oscar/Bafta voters, needs a cull.

        Commode’s utterly bland vanilla reviews, WOR, are as featureless as his supposedly polished ones, but that’s why he’s the housewives choice. He says nothing, he upsets no-one, no-one knows he’s there.

        And finally…the medium doesn’t want anything, and more than your phone wants to be used, or films want to be watched. If clicks are people reading and enjoying, then nothing wrong with clicks.

        I think Ebert said it’s never been a better time to be a critic. Just don’t expect a dental plan. It’s always been a fake job for poshos, but there will always be writers worth reading.

        Better not be any bears in the quiz.

      17. Alex Good Post author

        Oh I totally disagree with you on one point. The medium wants something alright. It wants your attention. It wants your data. It wants your soul.
        Ebert was right, but without a dental plan I don’t know what sort of a future criticism has. It’s like looking at the current apocalypse besetting the arts economy (see Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash or William Deresiewicz’s The Death of the Artist) and wondering if writers, musicians, filmmakers etc. are going to keep doing this out of love. And if the only people who can continue are the top vloggers on YouTube, what does that tell you about where things are going to go? Not saying that there isn’t some great film criticism on YouTube, but the best stuff is not the most successful stuff. I think the biggest professional reviewer on YouTube the last few years has been a guy called Ryan. He’s six years old and his videos have him unboxing toys. Think he makes something like $14 million a year.
        Pretty sure the quiz is bear free. Just going over it now.

      18. tensecondsfromnow

        Meant to get back to this. “the best stuff is not the most successful stuff’; yes, and it’s been like that for centuries. Not about to change right now. For me, it’s not worth saying ‘the medium wants…’ anything. The medium is not sentient, it wants nothing. It’s the people behind it, and they’re reducing everything to the level of amateur to keep the business end as their preserve. Things like YouTube use autoplay and other tricks to generate huge figures, but it’s all fake and for effect. Ultimately, they’re just another channel seeking ad revenue; a guy who works there told me ‘if you have to ask what’s being sold, then what’s being sold is you.’ and I think that’s about right. But it’s not too late for us to try and make a better world…

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