Edna had been disappearing for a while now.
She’d been forgetful, agitated. Last Christmas, Edna forgot about the bathwater, and it flooded most of the house. And lately, she’d been worried that someone—something—was in that house with her. Knocking. Prowling. Watching. Waiting.
More signs of dementia, Kay figured.
But Kay didn’t imagine that her mother would literally disappear—that she would simply walk out her front door and into the forest.
Kay, with her own grown daughter Sam in tow, goes back to the family home and does everything she can to find her. She contacts police. She searches the woods. She waits anxiously, hoping Edna will come home.
And then one day, she does—plodding back home in her bare feet.
“Tea?” she asks politely. “One sugar, right?”
Edna’s unable or unwilling to say where she’s been. “I suppose I’ve been out,” she simply says. She only wants to pick up right where she left off. And while Sam’s thrilled that her Gran is back, Kay’s more unsettled.
Yes, Edna’s back … but is she? Is she really?
Relic takes us into the inner workings of a loving, but perhaps difficult, family. Interactions are soured by a complex history: Kay grouses over her daughter’s career choices as Sam rolls her eyes. Edna seems alternately pleased and resentful over this unexpected company. Kay struggles with how to cope with her sometimes difficult mother.
But we also see the underlying affection here—the love that forms the cornerstone of this twisted familial structure. Kay and Sam want to help Edna without giving up their own lives, but as the movie runs on, Kay’s attitude grows more and more sacrificial. The idea of her mother moving in with her, in Melbourne, would’ve been unthinkable when Kay first arrived; but she soon begins to think it might be best—regardless of the costs it might involve. Sam talks about the natural cycle of growing up and aging—how moms “change nappies” of their children, and then the children return the favor one day.
There’s a lot going on here, obviously, and I’m loath to give much away. But the film, in its own strange manner, offers a touching picture of what it means to be a family—and the sacrifices that it sometimes asks of us in very difficult times.
Supernatural forces sometimes seem to be in play here. We hear knocks through the walls, shadows in the corners and many other mysterious happenings. Some may be taken as literal or metaphorical, so just how much spirituality we find here may be up to the viewer.
We see Christmas decorations, including a blinking Christmas tree.
Though not designed to be titillating, Edna does appear naked at times. Near the movie’s opening, she stands nude in her living room, her shadowed backside exposed to the camera while a towel covers her front. She takes several baths, and we see her from the shoulders up. Sam, too, is seen in the bathtub, but only her shoulders and parts of her legs are visible.
In dreams, we see some unclothed, often withered people/corpses—one in a bathtub. Again, these moments are certainly not intended to be at all provocative, and we see nothing critical.
Edna gives Sam her wedding ring, telling her that she has now further use for it and adding, “Your mother’s already had a go.” (Though never explicitly stated, that conversation is perhaps the biggest clue that Kay is divorced.)
[Spoiler Warning] Edna’s degenerating state leads to some pretty disturbing moments. She rips a ring off someone’s finger and chases a visitor out of her room with a knife. She bites someone’s hand, drawing blood. She often carves petals and decorations in large wax candles, and she seems to cut herself without knowing. After Edna returns home, her nightgown has blood on it, and she sports a big, nasty, bruise-like mark on her chest—one that grows with time and that Edna begins to pick and worry and even cut. (She develops other bruises, too.)
Things get worse from there. Someone stabs her own cheek repeatedly; a leg seems to snap—a weird bone seeming to jut out of the skin—before it snaps back into place. Skin is picked and peeled off like an orange rind until what is left underneath is exposed. Someone fends off an attack with a big metal pipe, bashing the attacker into wounded submission. People knock their way through walls and are yanked around by mysterious forces.
We learn that Edna (accidentally?) locked Jamie, a neighbor with Down syndrome, in a closet. He was locked in there for hours, and the man’s father says that, when Jamie was finally discovered (screaming), he had paint underneath his fingernails from clawing at the door.
As mentioned, some dreams contain some disturbing images—including depictions, seemingly, of people falling over and dying as they sit on a bed. One corpse seems to open an eye. People throw things.
One f-word, one s-word and three or four abuses of Jesus’ name. We also hear a misuse of “God.”
Sam smokes what may be a marijuana joint when Jamie comes by and asks if he can take a puff. Sam allows it, but Jamie doesn’t particularly like it.
When Kay and Sam first step into Edna’s house and discover she’s gone, they find sticky notes around the house reminding Edna to do certain things. “Take pills,” one says.
Edna urinates on the floor, and the camera focuses on the puddle for a bit. She refers to Jamie as a “retard” and often doesn’t treat her loved ones very kindly. We see her eating paper and photographs.
Kay, meanwhile, may be guilty of not checking in as she should’ve, given the circumstances. We know, at least, that she feels like she should’ve been more conscientious. When she admits to a police officer that it’s been “a few weeks” since she last talked with Edna, she adds, “It’s been crazy, you know how it is.”
Horror movies have always been, by definition, an exploration of our fears. Often, they’re pretty superficial. (Ghosts! Aliens! Maniacs with creative torture machines!) But some, especially lately, have taken a deeper, more metaphorical dive into what terrifies us. The Babadook was as much about mental illness as a murderous bogeyman. Get Out was an exploration of racism.
Relic touches on an issue that has, or will, touch many of us: aging and dementia. While we can superficially watch it as a slow-burn supernatural horror story, I suppose—and at times, we have to—its creators invite us to consider something deeper, and perhaps something more sinister: How loved ones can fade from us bit by bit, turning into people we barely recognize. Turning, even, into monsters.
“She’s not Gran!” Sam shouts at one point, and it’s true. Whether she’s a monster or victim (or both) is up for discussion, and whether her transformation is literal or metaphorical is in our reading. But when I heard that line, I immediately thought of my own grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s in her last years. I said goodbye to her, in a way, long before she died.
I think it’s fair to say that this long goodbye can be pretty horrific. It’s scary and sad and sometimes awful. But Relic also offers a note of hope in that horror. As awful as that time can be, there’s something beautiful in it, too—how perhaps, if we dare, we can respond in love and kindness to this new reality. How we can honor the person who left us while caring for the person who’s still with us. That doesn’t mitigate the sadness or exhaustion or pain. But it is something. It is, perhaps, a small gift that we both give and are given.
Relic acknowledges that gift even as it revels in horror. But as terrible as what we see and hear can be, it doesn’t wallow in the sort of problematic content you might expect when you see that it’s rated R. It deserves that rating, but only barely. The violence and gore we see are horrific but brief. A scene of very brief nudity of an aging woman isn’t intended salaciously. And the harsh language for this Australian flick is more in keeping with a PG-13 film.
This is not to excuse Relic in any way for its content issues, because there are some to note here. In addition, this at times deeply unsettling horror film could well give viewers nightmares, and it’s certainly not meant for children. But Relic was made for a reason beyond simply scaring viewers and making money. There’s a story behind this—a story that many have walked themselves.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.