What makes a house haunted? In most recent cinematic ghost stories, it’s some combination of spirits and/or demons, often but not always malevolent, often but not always prone toward possessing spooky-looking dolls. Unfinished business sometimes figures into it, too — but then, who among us will leave this world with our business entirely, satisfyingly finished? It’s easy to blame cursed objects or the opening of a gateway to the other side, and harder to accept that if lack of resolution in life turns people into ghosts, many of us will get the chance to haunt our own homes someday.
Edna (Robyn Nevin), the elderly woman at the center of the new IFC Midnight horror film Relic, does not appear to be haunted by particular nagging regrets, or a dark past. When she disappears without a trace from her home, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) are upset, though not necessarily shocked: Edna is getting on in years, and starting to exhibit signs of mental decline. She lives on her own, and though she seems to prefer it that way, Sam is especially troubled by her grandmother’s situation, while Kay clearly feels both guilty and defensive about not taking better care of her. They visit Edna’s home together, and start to sort through her belongings, looking for clues about where she might have gone.
Then she comes back with scraggly hair and bare feet, looking a bit like a movie ghost, particularly the damp-looking spectres of Japanese horror and its many American derivatives. At times, her behavior seems off to Kay and Sam, and she has some troubling black marks on her skin. Then again, she also has moments of reassuring lucidity. The three women stay at Edna’s house together to watch over Edna, as Sam contemplates a move and Kay visits a local nursing home. Writer-director Natalie Erika James mixes scenes grappling with the reality of elder care, and more directly nightmarish moments. (Sometimes literally, as Kay has disturbing dreams while bunking at her mom’s house.) She raises questions about whether Edna’s violent mood swings and mysterious disappearances are something more sinister than dementia — or if dementia itself isn’t plenty sinister for all involved.
The running metaphor is both incisive and a little obvious. The “haunted” conditions of Edna and her home are horrific in their everyday recognizability, which also means they start to feel repetitive, even predictable, in spite of Relic’s brief running time. The movie’s actual horror imagery is pretty familiar, too: water damage that’s turned to rot; glimpses of bodies with corpse-like desiccation; confined spaces with dim lighting.
But that familiarity, working in tandem with the movie’s emotional realism and the fine, restrained performances from Mortimer and Heathcote, all give the creepiness a psychological weight. Some of its most memorable details have to do with vividly capturing what it’s like to sort through someone else’s home, as when Sam must move a piece of furniture back to the heavy grooves it’s left in the carpet over time. James also has an eye for sad-funny ironies, like the scene that forces a grown-up daughter to check underneath her elderly mother’s bed for monsters.
When the scares do pop up, James plays fair with them, building her scenes with a genuine sense of dread, rather than taking every opportunity to spring jump-scares on the audience. Relic’s slow-burn, plot-light intensity is reminiscent of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, and on a visceral, scene-by-scene level, it’s not nearly as frightening. As Sam and Kay are drawn further into the darkness and suffocation of Edna’s home, James appears increasingly comfortable operating in the realm of dream logic and metaphor. No back-of-the-book solutions or complicated mythology await — and by its arresting ending, that’s exactly what makes Relic so distinctive.
At times, Relic reaches something like lyricism, which lifts a bleak horror movie above hopeless wallowing. The movie isn’t so much doomy or depressing as it is clear-eyed and resolute about its own horrors. There are times when it becomes clear that what we know about Kay, Sam, and Edna is limited, and that it might be interesting to know a little more about their lives before this moment. But that’s what lurks in this haunted house: the inevitable understanding that age can strip away all the familiar details of a life, right in front of our eyes.
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