The four words "It's not her anymore" are familiar, crushing reminders to anyone with a parent or grandparent in the grip of Alzheimer's disease or dementia. In the haunted-house thriller "Relic," first-time co-writer and director Natalie Erika James knows exactly when to put those words into play.
It's worth seeing in any case, if only to see a seriously skillful debut feature director breathe new life into a familiar Old Dark House scenario.
Seventy-five miles west of Melbourne, Edna (Robyn Nevin, whose icy stare could make Billie Whitelaw and Christopher Lee turn and run) lives alone in a house built on an old family homestead. Once upon a time Edna's grandfather lived in a cabin on the same land, adjoining the forest. He met a bad end, as we see in glimpses of nightmares preying on Edna's daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer, full of fine-tuned elements of guilt and worry).
Edna has gone missing, possibly the result of Alzheimer's. Kay and her grown daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) come from Melbourne to find her. Where "Relic" goes from there offers both familiarity (which isn't the same as predictability) and a well-honed sense of dread in low light.
Early in the picture, which runs about 85 minutes not counting the end credits, Edna reappears one morning, no explanation, no fuss, though with a mysterious, purplish bruise below her neck. One minute, she's lucid, even kind; the next, as "Relic" inches closer to its key family secret, she seems to be possessed by another spirit entirely.
No less than the three main performers, all of whom are excellent, the key collaborators include cinematographer Charlie Sarroff and sound designer Robert Mackenzie. Their respective accumulations of detail and menace within the old house's shape-shifting hallways and closets really are impressive.
If "Relic" ends up a tick or two below another homebound Australian horror winner, "The Babadook," it's because this story, co-written by Christian White, establishes a too-steady rhythm and sticks to it throughout. On the other hand, the question of what's really going on with Edna's psyche haunts the film in a way that's both effective and honorable within the chosen genre. The movie ventures into body-horror imagery in its last act, but without crazy excess. And Mortimer, in particular, fills "Relic" with a quiet, tense presence that is entirely human.
MPAA rating: R (for some horror violence/disturbing images, and language)
Running time: 1:29
Streaming on iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, YouTube, Vudu, PlayStation and Xbox.
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