For women in horror films, trauma is fated. It is their bodies at the mercy of narrative evil; their pain actuated through screaming heroism as the Final Girl or through sexualisation in their untimely deaths. Misogyny is certainly at the root of this cinematic brutality towards women, yet female-centred violence has inadvertently come to reflect the reality of birthing, mothering, ailing bodies. At odds with its stereotypical perversity and prolific male directorship, the horror genre is attentive to the violence of feminine experience more so than any other genre. Due to the emergence of more women directing films within this genre, a genre which has long made female bodies suffer at the centre of its violence, horror as a genre has become increasingly empathetic with women and their subjectivities.
In Natalie James’ first feature-length film, Relic, maternal and corporeal images are abundant. Pink Christmas lights pulsate and flicker, a bathtub overflows with water, and we see the figure of a nude older woman with her back to the camera. James’ inclusion of the ‘unhinged, naked older woman’ trope (sometimes known as hagsploitation) is far from innovative, with The Shining and The Witch as some of its famous users. Its inclusion typically engenders uncomplicated feelings of estrangement and unease: thematising hallucination, surrealism, or witchcraft. In Relic, however, this naked figure has less to do with horror and more with spectating vulnerability and physical decline, made clear by several moments of the film wherein nudity occurs outside the horror remit: in the context of bathing. James’ utilisation of well-established horror motifs, such as the naked older woman, is a means to assimilate a feminine experience to the architecture of horror: she plays by the rules of the genre but applies her own emotional subtext.
Much like kindred Australian horror, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, the horror of Relic is not merely a maniacal woman, it is the extent to which loss and grief manifest – through being widowed in The Babadook and through infirmity and dementia in Relic. Except, unlike Kent’s film, the grief in Relic is not felt by the matriarch. It is felt by her daughter and granddaughter who are uncertain how to process the increasing physical decline of their mother and grandmother. This extension of feeling, the pain in witnessing another body deteriorate, confirms the film’s maternal lens. Relic is not a horror about being a mother — it is a horror about being a daughter.
During the mysterious disappearance of matriarch Edna (Robyn Evin), her presence stirs in every frame. Transitions between empty rooms emulate a blinking eye, suggesting a disembodied, omniscient spirit that swells throughout the house. The home’s spiritedness is emphasised by the patches of flecked mould that inhabit each room, in parallel to the blackened bruise Edna amassed during her unexplained absence. It is precisely the visible decay of her body and home together that illustrates the film’s grave familial dynamics.
Sam (Bella Heathcote), Edna’s granddaughter, is closer to Edna than her own daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer). It is Sam who receives piano lessons, jewellery, sentimental interactions; only she is afforded a tender version of her grandmother. Kay, by contrast, as the maternal successor only sees Edna in degrading, grotesque detail. She alone witnesses her mother destroy family scrapbooks and self-injure, while Sam becomes lost inside a womb-like network of secret tunnels behind the walls. In an appropriate order of lineage, it is Kay who is most presently and intensely affected by the horror of Edna’s deterioration. After a birth-like sequence wherein Sam pulls Kay through a mould-covered wall, it is Kay who ritualistically lays her decomposing mother to bed. Therein marked with a similar bruise, she herself becomes a symbol of inherited violence: the titular relic.
Relic is much more than its veneer of generational horror. To their own misfortune, some may dismiss this film for its familiarity of tropes, especially in relation to Ari Aster’s Hereditary, and overlook the force of James’ feminine subjectivity. Relic is a fantastic debut feature, an agonising, vital addition to the movement of female directors and their earned reclamation of the genre.