This is a pretty good horror film with at least two unusual twists: It is a story about three generations of women and with a theme of senile dementia.
Set in a nice, oldish house outside Melbourne, Relic opens as Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her young adult daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), travel from the city to find their mother and grandmother, who has not been seen for a number of days.
When they arrive, the mother-grandmother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), is nowhere to be found. Her house is a mess, and there are notes that Edna has left in various places to remind herself of basic household matters, a sign of forgetfulness.
Kay goes to the police department.
“She’s in her 80s. She forgets things,” she tells the officer. A police search of the area around the house finds nothing.
Kay sets to work cleaning the place. One day Edna appears in the kitchen, barefoot and wearing her bathrobe, which has a spot of blood on it. A medical person comes to check Edna’s vitals and, except for an unexplained bruise, finds the grandmother well enough.
But Edna is not well. She forgets things she said the day before. There are a note and a verbal reference to an unidentified “it.” Dark patches appear at various spots in the house. The gathering question is whether there is something more than memory loss that is afflicting this grandmother.
The final scenes are suitably horrifying but, like other films in the genre, there is not a logical explanation for what has happened. There cannot be a logical explanation. It’s a horror film.
It is a credible first feature for Australian director Natalie Erika James, who cowrote the script.
While movies now tend to be longer, this one is relatively short at 89 minutes. Its pace is not fast. It does not leave the viewer thinking that a lot of film was left behind on the cutting-room floor. This brevity, taken with the three-actor cast and a story set almost entirely in a single house, suggests a very limited budget.
This is not unusual for a director’s first film and not unusual for horror films. Roger Corman, Hollywood’s “King of the B movies” directed and produced hundreds of films between 1954 and 2018, including many horror pictures. Made him pretty rich.
When you think about it, horror stories are cheaper. Fake blood is cheap, ominous music is not expensive, the bad guy is either invisible or only shows up for a few scenes and the stories don’t involve many actors.
Comedian Jordan Peele launched his directing career by making — what else? — horror movies: Investors put up $4.5 million for 2017’s Get Out and $20 million for last year’s Us. Both films grossed more than $175 million in US theater ticket sales. Even if you leave aside the promotion budgets and the credits back to multiplexes, both movies “earned out” handsomely. Peele is a smart man, and whatever project he proposes (no matter how long the pandemic continues), investors will want to participate. Not many filmmakers can count feel so confident at this moment.
The Idiosyncratist has observed more than the usual number of new horror films being released this year. In a way, it seems odd. Why would the audience for fright be higher during a year marked by a scary disease, massive economic uncertainty and a contentious presidential election?
My guess is that streaming outlets are looking for more content and are snapping up inexpensive horror films that never found distributors or audiences. Audiences are looking for something new to watch in their living rooms, and the current price model — $3.99 to $19.99 per rental — isn’t going to be enough to cause the Disney or Marvel to commit to making or releasing new films in their traditional styles.