‘Relic’ Is a Terrifying Psychological Horror That Brilliantly Taps Into Our Fears About Aging

Three generations of women grapple with changes in “Relic,” a horror set in a remote part of Australia. Emily Mortimer stars as Kay, a Melbourne woman who returns to her childhood home after her elderly mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), goes missing. Her equally concerned adult daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), also arrives at the decaying home to join the search. Having a loved one go missing is indeed a scary ordeal, but the real terror begin after Edna returns, exhibiting bizarre behavior that goes beyond the usual symptoms of aging.

Director-co-writer Natalie Erika James does an excellent job of laying out the generational divide. Naturally, Kay and Sam, whose relationship was already fraught beforehand due to what Kay perceives as Sam’s aimlessness, disagree with how to deal with Edna. While Kay initially plans to move her into assisted living, Sam is willing to move in with her grandmother. The more career-driven Kay isn’t very supportive of her daughter making such a sacrifice, while Edna would prefer to be just left alone. While her house is physically falling apart, it holds for her a lot of memories, connecting her with her late husband.

“It’s easier to be friendly with your grandparent than your parent, because they’re the ones who do the discipling and set the boundaries,” said Heathcote during a Zoom conference call. “I felt that I was really on Robyn’s side and I was willingly misunderstanding mom’s intentions, and it was just more fuel to the fire in whatever complexities were in the relationship between us.”

Mortimer applauded the subtly in James’ script. “It was all delicately done, the complications of being somebody’s daughter, and somebody’s mother, and however much you love the people you’re related to, you can also feel an awful lot of pain and regret and confusion in their midst, too, and that felt really right.”

However, before the women can decide on anything definite for Edna, her behavior becomes increasingly erratic, even volatile. And the house itself also starts to take on a life of its own, terrifying Kay and Sam. James does a great job of showing here how the scariest things in life are often those things we don’t clearly see and understand. 

While there are plenty of frights, the film is grounded in a very real, very human story. The viewer cannot help but feel for the women when we see flashes of Edna as the loving mother and grandmother before she reverts to someone else entirely, some neither Kay or Sam recognize.

James, Heathcote, Nevin and Mortimer discussed at length what they learned about themselves during the making of a film that taps into our fears about aging, hereditary illness, and losing a loved one. 

“I think you always learn things about yourself through your writing,” said James. “A lot of the times you write intuitively, and then you look back and you’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize that was an issue.’ Certainly, it’s very illuminating, and it’s even more illuminating when you read stuff that people have written about your work and that look at it in a way that you never would have considered.”

“I feel like my grief is very close to the surface, and it was wonderful to be able to explore that in a film,” recalled Heathcote. “I remember talking with my therapist at the time and being like, ‘I have to do this stuff at work (whining),’ and she was like, ‘What else are you going to do with it? It’s great. You can use it.’ I was like, ‘Okay, fine.’ Certainly, fear about mortality and those I love dying is probably my predominant fear, which is strange, considering we’re all going to die at one point… Losing someone to a hereditary disease or perhaps falling ill to it myself, that’s definitely something that I’ve thought about a lot since that film.”

“I think it illuminated my relationship with my daughter, for me, and also with my deceased mother, and that was useful,” said Nevin. “Interestingly, being the oldest person, 78, the eminent death didn’t affect me at all. I didn’t have any sense of my own mortality through that, interestingly. Maybe that’s just suppression. But there were many sad moments, I have to say.”

Mortimer spoke about the feeling of female empowerment and solidarity on set. “One of the things that really happened on that set was a feeling of just how cool women are. I’ve never had an experience of really just working with three other women. That was really the experience. I just loved it, and it was so different, not having the presence of an alpha guy around… It was really exciting in a way that I had never known before, because there’s normally a guy around to queer the pitch, somehow, and complicate things in an annoying way.”

Relic” premieres July 10 on VOD.