Director Natalie Erika James’s film Relic creeps onto screens July 10 with its chilling portrait of a family haunted by the spectre of dementia.
Horror has a long history of manifesting psychological turmoil in demonic form, Jennifer Kent’s 2014 chiller The Babadook being a recent example. Wendy Ide compares Relic with The Babadook in her review: “Both are Australian productions; both are directed by women; both are distinctively female in their perspective, with terror and empathy working in tandem, with their emphasis on malignancy within the home and on the carer compelled to nurture something which may or may not be evil.”
“Several years ago I took a trip back to Japan to see my grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s,” James recalls. “It was a trip I’d kept delaying for one reason or another, and when I finally got around to seeing her, it turned out I’d left it too late—she didn’t recognize who I was. The guilt was hard to swallow. At a certain level, it felt worse than death—to see your loved one progressively lose parts of themselves, and slowly become a stranger.
“The rural town where my grandmother lives is where I’d spent many of my summer holidays, attending the local primary school with my cousins,” she continues. “During that trip I observed how much the town had declined—all the younger generations choosing to relocate to the bigger cities, leaving an aging community behind. There were horror stories about elderly people being found dead in their homes well after the fact —neglected and forgotten, their children in distant towns, their bodies starting to deteriorate. I could think of nothing more heartbreaking.
“It’s a combination of these things that became the starting point for Relic,” James explains. “Using a multigenerational story to create a character-driven, emotionally-resonant horror, I sought to explore the heartbreak and horrors of aged dementia, the importance of human connection and the shifting roles and dynamics within a family. Relic begins more firmly rooted in drama, and slowly devolves into a horror and genre space, mirroring Edna’s mental and physical deterioration.
“Edna’s descent into the Other demonstrates that there are more horrific things than simply death. What’s worse is grieving for the loss of someone while they are still alive,” she says, “It is the degradation of once brilliant minds, kind souls, and a treasured lifetime of memories; it is the feeling of becoming a stranger to the person who brought you into the world—these are the true terrors.”
Ide’s review also notes the influence of J-horror (the Japanese horror genre) on Relic’s Australian-Japanese writer/director. “I watched a lot of Asian horror growing up, and I was really into kind of, as a kid, darker fairy tale, and as I got older, kind of darker, gothic, horror literature. So that was already kind of infused in the way that I tell stories,” James tells Haleigh Foutch. “And I think genre, like horror in particular, is such a great vehicle for social commentary and an amazing genre to talk about fear.”
“Fear is pretty primal,” she adds in an interview with Stuart Kemp. “Horror allows you to capture the essence of a topic, an experience, an emotional truth as opposed to exploring it in, say, cinema verité where you try and capture the truth as is.”
James explains the root of this emotional truth: “My grandmother [died shortly after Relic finished postproduction]. The writing of the film was quite cathartic for me. Writing the script [with co-writer Christian White] felt like one of those wonderful egoless relationships. It taught me so much in terms of collaboration and not being precious.”
The script attracted Jake Gyllenhaal’s production company Nine Stories to produce James’ debut feature, as she recalls in the Foutch interview: “They came on board when we were still at script stage, so we actually did a couple of drafts and scripts with them, which is fantastic because we showed it to a few companies, but when we spoke to them about the script, their notes were so aligned with kind of what we wanted the film to be.”
“I’ve always called it a psychological horror,” she continues in her interview with Ide. “The drama is just as important as the horror. Psychological horror feels the most apt. It’s not a traditional, all-out horror film.” In her interview with Foutch she credits the influence of David Lynch and Lars von Trier on this psychological, surrealist tone: “They play in a lot of dream-like imagery or lyrical kinds of sequences that evoke a real mood, or tone, or emotion.”
James wanted to focus on what you don’t see more than what you do, telling Kemp: “It is so impressive in Asian horror how they create tension within the frame without the jump scares. I wanted to capture something like that, the slow creep of something coming towards you without the shock, the loud noise to make you physically frightened. Horror is so much about what you don’t see and that’s infinitely scarier than what you see on screen. I always appreciate a good sequence where the horror is building even though you can see it plainly on screen.”
Sound design proved an important part of building this sense of horror, mixing sound design and score to suck viewers into the spooky setting. James tells Foutch: “I really wanted a distinct kind of soundscape where we didn’t rely on anything too orchestral, so that meant that a lot of the music that we use in a lot of sequences is drawing on diegetic sound and sound design, so there was this real big crossover of the design and score elements, even though I did have a composer and a sound design engineer.”
The female-centric cast was another crucial element for James, featuring Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin and Bella Heathcote. “Historically horror has been a male-dominated space, but there has been an emphasis on reaching gender parity in the industry in the last five years in every genre,” James observes. “Perhaps audiences are hungrier for ‘elevated genre’ and the position of women on screen has changed as wel—the extreme violence towards women that the horror genre used to provide an excuse for is maybe just not as interesting to audiences anymore.”
The central female relationships proved instrumental for the cast’s emotional attachment to the script. “I think it was the mother-daughter-granddaughter relationship that I so appreciated, because it felt very real to me, very raw,” Nevin tells Matt Grobar. “I’d dipped into that life experience a little bit myself, so I believed it. I thought it was very truthful.”
“I feel like we naturally just fell into some sort of family dynamic straight away,” Heathcote adds. “There was just an ease there, and as far as character and preparation and all that, I feel like half the work was done for me. Everything was there in the script, and what wasn’t there in the script was there on set.”
That said, the film took a demonstrable psychological toll on its actors. “Bella cried for four days straight,” says James. “It’s really physically and emotionally grueling. Everyone was joking afterwards that they’d have to go do a comedy as a remedy.”