Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 09, 2020 8:05 am 
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Ladies on the midnight watch

For most of us at least, the spookiest place is home, and the scariest people are found in one's own family. The "haunted house" is where we grew up, with all its memories. The most frightening event is for a family member to become no longer himself. That is the basis of this excellent, subtle, and beautiful slow-burn horror film from Australia, the work of four ladies: first time director Natalie Erika James and main cast members Robyn Nevin as Edna, the old lady who appears to be losing her marbles; Emily Mortimer (doing a good Aussie accent) as her daughter Kay; and Bella Northcote as Sam, Kay's daughter. (Men helped on some of the other details.) Relic really is a slow one. But its subtlety is a real selling point. For much of the way it stays very close to the ordinary events of family life. It invades our sense of the ordinary with the terrifying and builds to a climax.

Time is the stealthy enemy we all face. The thing about a big old house is that it contains many reminders of the past that may haunt us. The big old house in Relic isn't a creepy, creaky Charles Addams mansion but a large, roomy, comfy bungalow out in the country. But some parts of it are beginning to trouble its main occupant. The familiar is turning into the unknown, the soothing into the frightening. The horror of ordinary life is death, which strikes on one's family, and gets you too at last.

Sam and Kay have come from town for an emergency as the film begins. The police have notified Kay that her mother has disappeared. The two women pursue inquiries and look everywhere and are very worried. Edna turns up three days later as if nothing has happened. But now if not before she is behaving strangely. She talks to herself. Mainly she's just uncooperative. She won't answer any questions. It turns out she may be becoming dangerous. But it's not always clear. Sometimes her long white hair is wild like a Japanese phantom or a witch's - a hint, like the invading mold and decay, of James's own Japanese roots - and sometimes her grey tresses are neatly tied back in the bun of an orderly old lady in it for the long haul.

But the bad signs multiply. Around the house are cryptic post-it notes inscribed with a mix of sensible things like "Take pills" and more troubling ones like "Am I love" or "Don't follow it." Sam learns her "Gram" has recently locked Jamie (Chris Burton), her young neighbor, Sam's childhood friend, with Down's Syndrome, in a closet while playing hide and seek, and forgotten he was there. Edna has a big unexplained bruise on her chest, and has cut herself. Kay discovers her outdoors eating paper - old family photos, it seems, and when stopped from doing that, the old lady turns to burying the whole book of snapshots, to protect it, she says. At one moment she breaks down. She is afraid and lost.

The film enhances these events and magnifies them with darkness in the house and edgy sounds. The camera creeps slowly around in the gloom. Even an ordinary event like a loudly malfunctioning washing machine becomes frightening.

There is terror in the unknown, and what happens to one's elders is new to us. Kay goes to Melbourne to visit an elder care home but, as can happen, it turns her off. Sam offers to come and stay with her Gram. Kay offers to bring Edna to stay at her house, preferring that to an institution. But the situation may be more beyond them than they realize. We in the audience sense by now that their offers to help out are wishful thinking. They will have a dawning realization when Edna starts to have moments of hostility and strike out at them.

Where this film distinguishes itself from conventional examples of the genre is in the ordinariness of its events much of the way and the smooth, almost imperceptible manner in which it modulates into the horror mode. It looks like old age. If you must give it a name it might be the approach of dementia or Alzheimer's. But within the heart of a family even such a commonplace event, when it arrives, seems strange and nameless. The filmmakers have something more radical in mind. Even before we get there, the slow-moving camera pans, the dark lighting, and the humming, haunting score, the old house's growing menace all conspire to say: horror! And what at first seemed to be invading the old lady, the growing menace takes over the other women as well.

This is an effective and well-crafted film. But it eventually gives way to the usual haunted house conventions more than it needs to for a screenplay with such complex, suggestive overtones. Charlie Sarroff’s cinematography brings out the surreal like an Ivan Le Lorraine Albright painting. BUt the trips up and down the dark hallways - enough already! (I loved the idea of horror in outdoor summer sunshine of Ari Aster's Midsommer) A short circuit's even resorted to to knock out all the lights in the final sequence. Brian Reitzell's looming, ominous score works harder than it needs to and only undermines the subtlety. More restraint of effects toward the end might have made Relic more effective, more terrifying. What's happening is scary. No need to paint it all so black. We don't want the whole story to be reduced to being afraid of the dark. A couple of bright light bulbs will easily sweep all that away, as Jessica Kiang notes in her mostly admiring Variety review. The real terror is in the daylight.

Relic, 89 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 25, 2020 to generally good reviews. (See David Rooney's for Hollywood Reporter, which notes the story was indeed inspired by a grandmother with Alzheimer's.) It was picked up by IFC Midnight for North American distribution, and was to have been in the Midnighters section of the recently cancelled SXSW festival. Due to the pandemic it has been scheduled to open online, on July 10, 2020, but is now listed as July 3. This review based on a screener was written in late May. Current Metascore 75%.

To watch Relic at home go here:

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