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How Natalie Erika James turned personal pain into the resonant horror of 'Relic'

Sonaiya Kelley, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Natalie Erika James' atmospheric thriller "Relic" is a film about inevitable and universal horrors.

Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote star as three generations of adult women grappling with matriarch Edna's (Nevin) encroaching Alzheimer's. The film, which is available now on video on demand and in select theaters (after an exclusive week at drive-ins), explores themes of mental and physical decline, abandonment fears and the cyclical nature of caregiving.

"Both as a mother and a daughter, I feel there's a lot of guilt, confusion and regret that goes along with being a caregiver," said Mortimer, who plays Edna's daughter Kay. "You always feel like you've given so much but you never feel like you've given enough. And I think that's really brilliantly expressed in the film as part of that process."

The movie, which debuted to critical acclaim at Sundance in January, marks the Australian writer and director's feature debut. The Times caught up with James in advance of the film's digital release to discuss the nexus of the idea, its similarity to vanitas paintings and the unexpected ways life imitates art.

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: It came from a really personal place. My grandmother, who lived in Japan, had Alzheimer's and I had taken a trip to go see her. She'd suffered from Alzheimer's for some time and it was quite a slow decline, but that particular trip was the first time she couldn't remember who I was. And it really had a deep impact on me because it's obviously heartbreaking when someone who's only ever looked at you with love is looking at you like a stranger. I felt a lot of guilt and regret at not having gone to see her more often.

 

She'd lived in this traditional Japanese house that was probably 100-150 years old. I spent most of my summers there and it used to really freak me out as a kid. Especially because there was a lot of clutter in the upstairs rooms. It was one of those houses with the sliding closet spaces that kind of feel like small rooms in themselves. So I think a combination of those things was really the starting point for the idea.

Q: What attracts you to the horror genre?

A: Probably the primal elements and how it affects you on an adrenal level. As a preteen and teenager, I'd always loved Asian horror. I think the first film I saw without parental supervision but with a bunch of friends was "The Others." And it terrified me so much, but there is such a thrill and joy in experiencing that with a group of people. It's not dissimilar to being on a roller-coaster ride.

I used to have a lot of nightmares as a kid as well. I had a lot of sleep paralysis too, so I was very used to seeing scary imagery. I've known I've wanted to be a director since I was 13 but I never really (planned for) horror specifically or genre movies. I was more drawn to very dark, psychological dramas. So when I went to film school that's where I started but slowly over time the stories had more horror elements emerging in them. Horror is the perfect vehicle to talk about fear.

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