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The new horror movie Relic is a perfect bookend for The Babadook

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The Sundance premiere is a slow burn built around a simple metaphor

An unnerved, grimy Bella Heathcote stands in the middle of a dim room full of old furniture, staring off-camera. Photo: Jackson Finter/Sundance Institute

Polygon’s entertainment team is on the ground at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, bringing you first looks at what are sure to be some of the year’s best blockbuster-alternative offerings. Here’s what you need to know before these indie films make their way to theaters, streaming services, and the cinematic zeitgeist.

Logline: When an elderly woman disappears from her Australian country home, her daughter and adult granddaughter move in, and deal with increasingly terrifying events.

Longerline: Single mother Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) are mildly at odds with each other over Sam’s aimless career and Kay’s busy life, which has kept her from properly looking after her own aging mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin). When a neighbor reports that Edna hasn’t come out of her house for days, Kay and Sam visit it together and find Edna missing. Strange things are happening in her house — there are notes posted everywhere with minor reminders, new locks have been added to some of the doors (including one closet door), and there are spreading areas of grimy brown or black corruption overtaking walls and doors. Soon, Kay starts having nightmares about a mysterious figure, and they both hear eerie scraping and thumping noises inside the walls.

But like good horror-movie characters, they write all these issues off as mundane problems. Then Edna reappears, filthy, bruised, and utterly disinterested in talking about where she’s been for the past several days. Her personality changes radically from day to day. One moment she’s sweetly reminiscing with Sam and inviting her to dance. The next, she’s talking to a mysterious presence, or fretting about the thing under the bed. Her behavior becomes increasingly irrational and dangerous, as she reacts to something she feels has entered the house and is changing things around her. As the tension builds in the household, Kay and Sam get lost in different ways.

The quote that says it all: “Since your grandfather passed, this house has seemed unfamiliar. Bigger. … I keep thinking it’s just been waiting for me, waiting until I was weak enough, alone enough, that it could get at me.”

Emily Mortimer, looking deeply worried, comes across her aging grandmother holding a family photograph under a large tree. Photo: Jackson Finter / Sundance Institute

What’s it trying to do? First-time director Natalie Erika James (who co-scripted with Christian White) starts Relic out like a murder mystery, then turns it into more of a ghost story, then veers into a monster movie with a particularly elusive monster. But eventually, she brings Relic into focus as a metaphor about the primal terrors of dealing with dementia — of watching a loved one being devoured by a disease that erratically, unpredictably robs them of their personality and agency. It’s a perfect bookend for The Babadook. Jennifer Kent’s unnerving 2014 film turns the alienness of children (and the discomforts and miseries of parenthood) into a literal monster. Relic does something similar for the alienness of the elderly. It taps into the fear of physical and mental disintegration, and finds physical forms for the way people can get lost in their own heads.

Does it get there? Creepy, unnerving children are a dime a dozen in horror movies, but creepy, unnerving older characters are significantly less common. For every film like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, which covers a lot of the same ground as Relic, there are half a dozen scary-kid movies like the 1960 Village of the Damned, 1984’s Children of the Corn, or 2019’s The Hole in the Ground. So some parts of Relic feel fresher than others. As an ambiguous presence — half victim of an unseen threat, half antagonist threatening her own family — Nevin does a terrific job of building sympathy, then abruptly puncturing it. Relic builds slowly, piling on a lot of different phenomena that don’t seem to add up, from the spreading mold in Edna’s home to Kay’s horrifying dreams to a mysterious house that used to be on Edna’s property. (Relic often feels something like Ari Aster’s Hereditary in that regard — unnerving, but overcrowded with ideas and events.) Once James finally switches over to full-on horror mode, though, Relic is honestly terrifying.

The downside is that the metaphor is fairly thin. Seeing through it does provide a skeleton key to all the diverse phenomena around the house, from the spreading rot (a parallel to Edna’s physical decay) to some of Edna’s more bizarre behavior. (Eating family photos? A literalized symbol of a family’s memory-keeper falling into senility and losing her most precious memories.) On an entirely literal level, Relic never makes much sense: Why, faced with all these terrifying events, wouldn’t Kay and Sam move out as quickly as possible? Or at least why wouldn’t they hire a contractor to come in and do something about the spreading black mold everywhere?

But James stages the action cleanly and moves it along quickly, and Mortimer and Heathcote both model abject, miserable terror extremely convincingly, enough to take the audience along for a creepy ride. James and White don’t go particularly deeply into Kay and Sam’s personalities, but they do give them a little key nuance as they separately weigh their responsibilities to Edna, and their love for her, against their own discomfort and need to escape her. And Sam’s final-act journey through Edna’s house is a sublimely tense and unpredictable sequence, designed to leave the audience with fingernail marks on their palms and cold sweat pooling on their skin.

What does that get us? Viewers could debate endlessly whether The Babadook is a real, physical creature or a manifest metaphor, and they can have the exact same arguments over Relic. But it’s going to be a lot more fun to just give into the well-crafted scares, and to the outsized, uncomfortably relatable emotions of the final scene.

The most meme-able moment: Toward the end, there’s some serious body-horror action that seems like it could be meted in a variety of ways, but it’d be a sin to give away the details.

When can we see it? Relic is at Sundance as an acquisition title, looking for a distributor, so it’ll be sometime down the road.