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  Relic Down The Up Staircase
Year: 2020
Director: Natalie Erika James
Stars: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Steve Rodgers, Chris Bunton, Robin Northover, Catherine Glavicic, Christina O'Neill, John Browning, Jeremy Stanford
Genre: Horror, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Kay (Emily Mortimer) has not heard from her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) for a few weeks since they spoke on the telephone, but she receives word from the local authorities that her parent has gone missing: the house was found empty when Kay and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) arrive, and they are increasingly concerned for her welfare seeing as how nobody has been in contact with her for a few days. Last Christmas Edna almost flooded her house by leaving the bath taps running, and although nobody wants to admit it, she has clearly been suffering the early signs of dementia, so it is imperative that she be found, alive with any luck...

Edna is found alive, or rather after Kay and Sam have been sharing her rickety old house in the woods for a couple of days, she appears as if she had never been away, and indeed that may be the case as we learn more about the parameters of this building: think impossible geometry that may be a reflection of the old woman's mental breakdown, and you would be on the right track. Relic was a film that was linked to The Babadook, for they are both Australian horrors directed by women with a strong metaphorical edge, and a lack of self-consciousness whether going blatantly for the jump scare or the spooky, uncanny item of haunting atmosphere.

They each had a family theme, too, though Relic added a generation on The Babadook's mother/young son dynamic to render the grandparent the problematic one. That was really where the comparisons ended, for there was no monster here for the family to cope with, unless you extended that notion to take in the abstract and representational. There were hints throughout that opening hour the house was on its own particular borderland, a game of hide and seek that went drastically wrong here, the central staircase taking a little too long to walk down than seems reasonable there, but it went all out for the weirdness come that final act.

This could have been a tricksy little chiller relying on its intricate production design for effect, yet its low key (for the most part) acceptance that things were going to get worse for everyone, and there was nothing you could do about it except try to be as comfortable as you can, generated a curious Zen calm that was intermittently punctured by the sort of flailing panic that comes from kicking uselessly against the inevitable. We will all grow older, some of us older than others, and some of us will find our bodies breaking down more drastically than others - but some of us will have our minds doing the breaking down, as senility encroaches, and the horror stemmed from the awful knowledge there was nothing we could do about that. Either you see a loved one deteriorate, or you have the dread that your own mind is dissipating.

Understandably, Relic was not a barrel of laughs, and in light of the above, this was a film about issues most people would prefer not to consider until it was absolutely necessary: seize the day, enjoy the good times while they last, it's later than you think and so forth. But a work like this allowed you to process the unthinkable in a style that would not be as "enjoyable" had this been a straightforward drama like Still Alice, and though that was a better film that more people would have more patience with, here co-writer and director Natalie Erika James' imagination was not to be underestimated. She crafted dementia like a possession, or a physical disease like a communicable virus, which was something of a cheat since it's not a hereditary condition, but added to the unease of the central family's situation. This film had its own coping language as well as its scenes of horror, some of them ingenious in their simplicity, and the lack of a monster was in its favour, its curious method of concrete comparisons in a fantastical, almost fable-like world its main strength outside of three, excellent, anguished performances. Music by Brian Reitzell.

[In cinemas and digital 30th October 2020. With previews in Showcase Cinemas on 29th October.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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