*. 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 RogerEbert.com 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.