The generic boundary separating horror from drama feels especially thin and permeable during the new Australian film Relic. The creep of unease you feel while watching is the result of actual, relatable life processes rather than ramped-up movie chicanery; its haunted house is just a home that's been lived in a long while. Underpinning every one of director Natalie Erika James's images is the fear of getting old, and of seeing your loved ones growing old, incapable, and disappearing before your eyes. It happens to us all, and that's the scary part. For starters, James and co-writer Christian White introduce us to fresh-faced mother-daughter pairing Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote), dispatched to a property on the greener fringes of Melbourne, where Kay's elderly mother Edna has been reported missing. There, they sit tight between tidying up rotting fruit bowls, begrimed windows and decades' worth of hoarding, falling subject to bad dreams and other bumps in the night. Worse follows when Edna (Robyn Niven) returns as suddenly and inexplicably as she vanished, in a blood-soaked nightie and with scars on her body, trailing the mystery of where she's been. Here is a common-or-garden dementia narrative - the stuff of a thousand afternoon TV movies - pushed to a dramatic and stylistic extreme.
It's been pushed gently, quietly and effectively, by a filmmaker who understands horror is one of the few genres where it often pays to go slow. We spend the bulk of Relic poking round this dishevelled household in the company of two recognisably modern girls (Mortimer and Heathcote, with but fifteen years between them in real-life, could almost be sisters; in this context, their youthfulness is the point) as they come to terms with the genetic curse hanging over this family. The horror sneaks in at night, and it's that of ageing and dementia itself, skilfully embodied by the 78-year-old veteran Nevin: the increasingly cranky attitudes, the violent lashing out at those who would care for them, and those carers' realisation that a person they love has been taken over by someone they don't know, and who neither knows nor cares about them. Edna's not a monster, rather human flesh-and-blood, in the grip of a terrible, incontrovertible thing. That cushioning compassion possibly precludes the oomph that made The Babadook both a rollicking night out and a runaway box-office sensation. Though Relic builds - declines may be more apt - towards a fraught finale involving an overflowing bath, an electric heater and a crawlspace that parallels a shrinking worldview, we're chiefly here to watch the rot setting in: production designer Steven Jones-Evans has come through with mildewed walls that in their own way reflect a diseased mind. Still, that process of decay has been very carefully thought and worked through, such that I could not discount Relic being a profoundly cathartic experience for anyone who's found themselves in a comparable scenario. As geronto-horror goes, it's a marked step-up from M. Night Shyamalan's puerile, flatly mocking The Visit.
Relic opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.