There is a distinct horror in losing a loved one for Alzheimer’s disease. It is a slow burning agony, the loss comes gradually until your heart burns in ashes. At midnight of IFC Relic, this horror is probed through a heart-wrenching haunted house story. Australian co-author / director Natalie Erika James reflected on her family’s battle against this sinister disease, inspired by her mother’s strength and her grandmother’s struggles. With his directorial debut, he not only exorcises the demons of this dark period, but also offers an overwhelming journey and an oddly moving catharsis for others who know this pain.
Important spoilers for Relic come on.
Relic focuses on three generations of women. Kay (Emily Mortimer) is a middle-aged divorcee who lives in Melbourne but tries to stay in touch with her widowed mother on the phone. However, when the days go by without hearing from Edna (Robyn Nevin), Kay brings her 20-year-old daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) on a horrible homecoming to Gram’s rural cottage. The house is ruined by decay. Water stains ooze down the walls. Rotten fruit attracts flies to a kitchen bowl. There is no trace of Edna, but Sam and Kay begin to perceive something He is at home. The safety lights come on for no apparent reason. The sound of breathing can be heard in a closet, but if checked – nobody is there.
Luckily, Edna comes back soon. Yet the terror has just begun. Checked by a doctor, she is lucid and even annoyed by all the hype that is being made. Aside from a large purple-black bruise on the chest, Edna looks fine. She will not offer answers on where she has been, acting offended by the intrusion of such questions. So, in the quieter moments, her strong voice trembles as she talks about thing keep going. He insists that it is this thing that has flooded the bathroom, that moves his favorite armchair out of place and hides under his bed. To Kay and Sam, these disappointments seem to come from a declining mind. But mother and daughter will soon learn that this monster is real and is approaching all of them.
James uses horror storylines as a dark setting, ghostly whispers, a lurking dark figure and increasingly surreal images to create a sense of terror. However, those who have seen Alzheimer’s toll on a person may be more horrified by the film’s more deeply-rooted fears, such as an intimate conversation between grandmother and granddaughter.
Convinced that Edna is no longer suitable for living alone, Kay goes to look for an assisted housing facility. Sam hates the idea, realizing how much his grandmother appreciates the family home. So while Kay is away, Sam kindly suggests that Edna move out. Previously, they had had a nice time when the gram had given the girl her wedding ring. In this, you may see the radiant love and respect the two have for each other. But now, Edna’s tone is high. She is furious at the way the couple seem to conspire and infantilize her. He acts like a completely different person, insulting when referring to a boy close to whom she had been close for years. She practically growls at Sam’s suggestion to move, then she is indignant at seeing the band on her finger. Without any memory of giving it to me, Edna launches verbally and physically with such spontaneous and characterless malice that Sam reacts as if he had seen a ghost.
This scene is striking because it quickly summarizes some of the hardest traumas that families of Alzheimer’s victims endure. In Edna, I was able to see pieces of my late grandfather. He was a kind man with a warm smile and infinite compassion to help anyone, as he could. He loved to cycle three miles every day, even in his 70s. He loved to work in his wooden workshop, creating crafts such as niches and wind chimes with spare parts. I had never heard him say a dirty word in my life, and I had never felt anything but love and joy when he looked at me. And then came the monster.
My grandfather’s bright eyes went out. His tongue became unpredictably harsh. His older children had to hide his bicycle and lock the shop because he could leave and not remember how to get home, or he could injure himself with the power tools that could no longer be trusted. And when he looked at me, I didn’t see love or joy, I saw confusion. He no longer knew who I was.
Here’s how Sam felt. The horror of looking at someone you love and realizing that while I am right in front of you, I am no longer there.
Relic it’s a three-part horror story that explores this journey through each of these generations. For Sam, the horror comes from realizing the loss it can’t stop. For Edna, it’s above the whirlpool that she can try to ignore but can’t escape. In lucid moments, we see Edna as she wishes to be: the resilient matriarch with strong opinions, a house of her own, independence and a hobby of creating intricate candle sculptures. Slowly, these are torn away by the monster. The cutting of the candle becomes a bloody mess. Post-it notes all over the house offer reminders like “take your pills”, suggesting that Edna is no longer completely self-sufficient. So there are troubling notes, like the one that says “don’t let him in”.
In quiet scenes, we hear Edna arguing with the monster, in others we see her frightened. She confesses to Sam, “Ever since your grandfather passed by, the house seems unknown, somewhat larger.” Later, Sam will learn what this means when a secret door leads her into strange and narrow passages. Her grandmother’s house is transformed from a familiar to a presumptuous maze, in which the Minotaur is the personified Edna dementia. You can run away from it, but you can’t run away. In the end, we watch helplessly while Edna is consumed by it. The bruise on the breast grows to swallow it all until nothing of the known and loved Edna remains.
Finally, Kay’s story is about learning to accept this monster as part of parent-child love. Relic shows the pain of reversed roles, since Kay has to look after the sick mother. It is a responsibility that initially refuses, turning to the assisted housing facility. But once Edna’s monstrous diagnosis occurs, Kay simply says, “I can’t leave her.” He does not flee the house and its horrors but willingly returns for a bold and breathtaking ending.
After a violent climax, in which Edna has become a snarling beast chasing her daughter, she now sits calmly and quietly on her bed. Kay tends it with gentle strokes. So, Kay constantly starts to peel off the skin and hair from her mother’s body. It does so with tenderness and without repulsion. What lies beneath the flesh of the shed is a coal-black creature, strange and solemn. Kay kisses his forehead, expressing that he accepts the transformation of his mother. He will take care of Edna even if the mother he knew has already gone away.
But the horror is not over.
When Sam reluctantly enters the bedroom, he finds his mother holding the monster close to him. Without saying a word, she curls up behind her mother, suggesting that she too will accept Edna as she is now. It seems almost a happy ending, or as happy as one might hope for horror. So, Sam sees something on the back of Kay’s neck: a bruise. At the beginning his great-grandfather is mentioned who went through a vague tragedy. Now, it happened to Edna. The bruise promises that Kay will be next. Sam will follow. Definitely, Relic he paints Alzheimer’s as a curse passed down, a curse that cannot be escaped. All we can do is keep close and comfort each other, even if the monster is breathing down our neck.