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Review: The high-end horror of ‘Relic’ chills to the bone

Robyn Nevin, left, and Emily Mortimer in Natalie Erika James' "Relic."
(Jackson Finter / IFC Midnight)

Prestige horror has become a genre unto itself in the last few years — ranging from the blockbuster success of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us” to arthouse breakouts including Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” and those falling in between, like Ari Aster’s “Hereditary.”

“Relic,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, doesn’t reach the heights of the genre, but it does have its roots firmly in the realm of fellow Sundance alums “Babadook” and “Hereditary.” The promising directorial debut of Australian-Japanese filmmaker Natalie Erika James uses horror tropes to tease out complex family dynamics. That involves three women of different generations: elegant grandmother Edna (Robyn Nevin), who suffers from dementia; her world-weary daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer); and her more rebellious granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote).

Guilt, obligation and regret loom as large in the narrative as the mysterious black mold that threatens to envelop Edna’s house, where the three family members struggle to accept what it means to face mortality. Those themes are likely to resonate even more deeply in our COVID-19 times, especially when viewers are watching at home via video on demand. There’s a pitch-black irony to the reality that this deliberately paced, quietly unsettling piece of art horror will also play in drive-in theaters nationwide due to the pandemic.

As in many of the best recent prestige horror films, the actresses here tear into their roles with skill more common in top-tier dramas. Aussie veteran Nevin emerges as the standout of a very fine trio, with a deeply felt performance that’s both heartbreaking and horrifying.

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James, who also wrote the script with Christian White, based the film in part on personal experience, and that lived-in empathy shines through. For most of its running time, “Relic” feels more like a chamber piece than a full-fledged horror outing, but a nail-biting third act ups the ante. And then James stages one of the more eerily unforgettable closing moments in recent memory. Who would have thought a journey into pure darkness could wind up at a destination of true tenderness.

'Relic'

Rating: R, for some horror violence/disturbing images, and language

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: Vineland Drive-in, City of Industry; Paramount Drive-in, Paramount; Mission Tiki Drive-in, Montclair; Van Buren Drive-in, Riverside; also available on demand

Drive-ins had no big-budget movies to show. Indie film distributors had no indoor theaters to screen in. How necessity, and a pandemic, brought them together.


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