It’s the burden of children to watch their parents die. One of the worst ways is a disease such as Alzheimer’s that slowly chips away until there is nothing left but a shell. They don’t call it the “long goodbye” for nothing. It’s like watching time go backwards, the afflicted curling in on themselves until fetal. This not hollow grandstanding. We watched this affliction take away my wife’s mother in recent years. The loss is immeasurable. But before death, the series of indignities from the forfeiture of facility to eradication of identity slink in and pull apart your loved one. Unlike a sudden death, such as heart attack, dementia takes its time, digs deep and brings something awful each day.

Debut director Natalie Erika James explores this idea of slow death in her horror film, Relic. Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) are summoned from Melbourne to the country when her mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), goes missing. When they arrive at her house they find it in disarray. There are signs that dementia has touched Edna: reminders in scrawled handwriting posted throughout the house, food left out that has turned, an accumulation of garbage, black mold running along the walls.

Edna suddenly turns up but does not say where she’s been. Her gray hair is unkempt and she looks a fright. Kay and Sam decide to stay close while they figure out what to do. The poor woman is obviously non compos mentis. Edna begins to act strange, eating photographs and lashing out at her daughter and granddaughter. There is also a patch of black mold that appears to be spreading across her chest.

James fills Relic with dread early on, setting the film in a coldly sylvan setting. As Kay and Sam struggle with Edna’s deterioration, its almost as if the entire house is also falling apart. But like other recent horror films, especially Heriditary, Relic goes all in for atmosphere but doesn’t truly make good on an initially interesting premise.

Mortimer does fine work as Kay. There is a lot of unspoken hurt between her and Edna and as she watches her mother fall apart, she realizes that there will never be a time to reconcile. Sam seems more aloof, but remains on the scene out of a familial sense of doing the right thing. But something doesn’t feel right. Edna becomes violent. Cuts herself with a knife. Perhaps there is something more at play than simple dementia.

James could have made a really stirring film about the complete loss of identity and the tendrils of grief that spiral out from this black hole. Yet, Relic collapses into a traditional horror film when Kay and Sam must find a way out of Edna’s house, which has somehow turned into a moldering labyrinth with Edna, skin sloughing off, its minotaur. There are hints about a cabin out in the woods that a relative once lived in that comes to Kay in dreams but there is no resolution or explanation. Basically, we have no idea what the hell is happening nor why. And that’s not good enough.

The final scene of Relic would have been near-classic if affixed to a better film. Instead, there is no real payoff for a slow-burning film that really goes nowhere. Just like the nonsensical stuff that plagues Hereditary, Relic doesn’t play by its own rules. A haunting image is one thing but needs more. Relic suffers from a crisis of identity, just like the story it sidesteps instead of fully embracing.

Relic suffers from a crisis of identity, just like the story it sidesteps instead of fully embracing.
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