Producers: Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riva Marker Director: Natalie Erika James Screenplay: Natalie Erika James and Christian White Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Chris Bunton, Jeremy Stanford and Steve Rodgers Distributor: IFC Midnight
Natalie Erika James’s “Relic” doesn’t revolutionize the haunted house movie, but it’s certainly a spooky and atmospheric reworking of an old formula, bolstered by strong performances from its trio of leading ladies.
The story is set almost exclusively at a remote estate in a forested area some distance from Melbourne. Kay (Emily Mortimer), who works in the city, arrives there with her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) to visit her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin). But they find her gone, and the house dark and disordered; they also find post-it notes adorning the walls with reminders Edna has written to herself. Most are innocuous, but others have a vaguely sinister tone. At best they suggest Edna is forgetful, at worst that she’s experiencing the beginnings of dementia.
Concerned over Edna’s absence, Kay calls in the local constable (Mike Adler), who organizes a search of the woods, with no effect. She also has an encounter with Edna’s young neighbor Jamie (Chris Bunton), a boy with Down’s syndrome, whose father Alex (Jeremy Stanford) will explain to Sam why his son is no longer allowed inside the house—the result of a painful experience Edna inflicted on the boy, locking him inside a closet.
While Edna remains absent, Kay is unnerved by a dream involving an old cabin in the woods with her mother inside. When she goes in, she encounters a decrepit old man alone, and awakens as black mold covers the cabin’s windows. Meanwhile Sam feels a frightening chill in that closet where she senses someone—or something—beside her.
In the morning, Edna has suddenly reappeared in the house, refusing to say where she’d been. Kay calls in a doctor to check on Edna’s health, and though he finds nothing physically wrong—apart from a mark on her chest—she begins to consider moving her mother to a nursing home in the city.
Over the following days Edna’s moods shift radically. At one moment she can give Sam a family heirloom or invite the girl to dance with her to the strains of an old record, only to turn on her with loud accusations and complain that the house seems to be changing. Sam even finds Edna cutting herself.
Kay becomes increasingly convinced that the cabin she sees in her dreams—where, she explains to Sam, her great-grandfather died alone and mad—is the source of what’s occurring. She becomes even more convinced when she follows Edna into the woods and watches her try to devour photos from the family scrapbooks, which she then tries to bury. Meanwhile Sam investigates the closet, only to find herself trapped in a labyrinth that seems to prove that the house has a mind of its own. And the fact that parts of the old cabin were used in making the house—like the stained-glass window in the front door—may well be the cause of the malignancy that now inhabits it.
The final act of “Relic” sees a further transformation in Edna—one that’s not only emotional but physical. It closes with a choice made by Kay and Sam about her that suggests that whatever curse lies upon the family is indeed multi-generational.
James, her co-writer Christian White, cinematographer Charlie Sarroff, production designer Steve Jones-Evans, editors Denise Haratzis and Sean Lahiff and composer Brian Reitzell have collaborated expertly to create a mood of dark, claustrophobic menace that builds cumulatively over the course of the film, and the effects created by Ceri Nicholls, Hauk Olafsson, Murray Curtis and Gene Hammond Lewis are unnervingly first-rate (as is the sound design), especially down the home stretch. For a low-budget production, “Relic” is visually and aurally compelling.
Its power is enhanced by the performances of Mortimer, Nevin and Heathcote. Each of them captures the essence of her character, with Nevin standing out as the elderly victim of a force she fears but ultimately can’t resist submitting to. This is basically a three-person chamber piece, and it could not work if all the leads weren’t superb. Happily, they are.
The result is a film that whose level of imagination is stronger in execution rather than in basic storytelling, but the excellence of realization easily compensates for a fairly predictable narrative arc.