Film Review: “Relic”

Starring: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin and Bella Heathcote
Directed by: Natalie Erika James
Rated: R
Running Time: 89 minutes
IFC Midnight

Every once and awhile, I still encounter someone who tells me that the horror genre is trash; that it’s nothing but blood, guts and boobs. It doesn’t take me long to rattle off a list of contemporary horrors that don’t fit that mold, and generally scare, thrill and linger in the psyche of viewers. “Get Out” is always an easy one to point to, as well as “It Follows,” “The Mist,” and others. In the current age of quarantine, I can now point to a streaming option that’ll push any viewer to the edge of their seat and leave them petrified through the end credits.

“Relic” opens on Kay (Mortimer) and Sam (Heathcote), the daughter and granddaughter of Edna (Nevin), visiting Edna’s house which sits by itself in dense, foreboding woods. The reason for their trip is that they’ve been told Edna has gone missing. The only thing that greets the mother/daughter duo upon their arrival is strange creaks and groans made by the house, as well as several mysterious notes that range from innocuous (“turn the light off”) to insidious (“DON’T FOLLOW IT”). Just as the authorities are called and a search for Edna begins, she reappears unannounced in the house one morning, making tea, acting as if nothing happened, despite the soles of her feet being covered in dark grime.

“Relic” relies on shadows, haunting imagery, and our general fear of the dark and unknown to keep us off kilter from the get-go. But it’s as the movie progresses, that “Relic” finds other scare tactics within the realm of mental health. The dive into realistic fears is combined with other tricks and treats from the horror genre grab bag. It’s a film that manages to earn some of its cheaper jump scares as opposed to throwing them in randomly mad libs-style like most mainstream horror films or any subpar Blumhouse production.

“Relic” takes it’s time, moving at a creepy pace, slowly sinking its claws in your mind. The directorial debut for Natlie Erika James is nothing short of impressive. The film moves with such confidence, that you suspect a veteran filmmaker is behind the lens. Having only written and directed a handful of shorts in the past, James also reveals the kind of equal parts terrifying and heartbreaking craftsmanship that Stephen King and Rod Sterling spent decades perfecting. James joins others, like Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”) and Emma Tammi (“The Wind”), when finding the unsettling middle ground between cerebral horror and spook house tropes.

The film’s atmosphere grips you immediately, letting you know upfront that not everything is as it seems and that something is horribly wrong with Edna. Nearly every viewer will recognize that Edna is suffering from a mental illness at her ripe age, most likely dementia.  But just like “Hereditary” a few years ago, the supernatural and family history can collide in frightening ways. The movie effortlessly keeps us on pins and needles, even when we think we’ve figured it all out. There’s this nauseating foreshadowing that we can’t shake as “Relic” reaches its climax. Even when the true horror reveals itself, we’re left with a pit in our stomach because we know what will happen next, even as the film ends.

Film Review: “The Wind”

Starring: Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles and Miles Anderson
Directed By: Emma Tammi
Rated: R
Running Time: 86 minutes
IFC Midnight

When it comes to horror in the Old West, there aren’t a lot of great examples, or even average examples. That’s peculiar because of how isolated people were in those times, complimented by the fact that urban legends and tales of the unexplained permeated the landscape. That brings me to “The Wind,” a film that doesn’t take long to introduce the audience to Lizzy (Gerard), who’s alone and distant from any signs of civilization. She only has one neighbor and they’re several miles away, far enough away in fact that she can barely see their cabin dot the horizon. Compounding her isolation is the fact that her husband is constantly gone, weeks at a time. She also suspects she isn’t alone.

“The Wind” is told, sometimes wordlessly, in a nonlinear fashion, forcing the viewer to piece together a tragic sequence of events involving Lizzy’s failed pregnancy, failing marriage, and the possibility that her mental health is deteriorating. Or maybe there is something howling with the wind at night. The nonlinear storytelling choice can be confusing, even for astute viewers. The single setting and bland landscape sometimes fail to help highlight at what point in time we’re at in the story. Some of the only signs that we notice we’re in the past is when Lizzy is sporting a soon-to-be miscarriage. On top of that, the film leaves various breadcrumbs surrounding the supposed evil entity lurking in the empty prairie lands surrounding her cabin, as well as what exactly has transpired to where Lizzy has found herself in such a precarious situation. It’s difficult to reveal too much in a short film that builds towards a harrowing final few minutes.

Since actress Gerard is left alone in many scenes, just like Lizzy, it’s up to her to pull off a solo performance that’s not only captivating, but also keeps the plot moving forward, and she nails it. Gerard does a magnificent job at handling both the fear and frustration that Lizzy is surely enduring. Even though she is relatively alone and without a life preserver in the great unknown, Gerard never paints Lizzy as a damsel in distress or shows any signs of helplessness. Instead Gerard beefs up that steely reserve that Lizzy must muster to overcome whatever comes at her, supernatural or not.

There’s an underlying commentary about how women have been mistreated, and not just in the 19th century. Lizzy is constantly ignored and her concerns are mocked. Instead of lending an ear and/or investigating her claims of something sinister stalking her cabin at night, she’s told to be quiet and to keep up with her wifely duties. It’s also implied she’s treated worse after losing her child. While the written story doesn’t hit the right notes, the visual story on screen is masterful. Director Emma Tammi, in her feature film debut, shows a knack for building a dread-filled atmosphere through hair-raising cinematography. This is the kind of freshman outing that promises better films down the pipeline.

 
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