In ‘Relic,’ is it haunted or is it dementia?

Courtesy of IFC Midnight/TNSEmily Mortimer as Kay in Natalie Erika James’ “Relic.”

The lasting image in “Relic” is the mold. It seems to creep up the walls before it pools into black holes. It’s disturbing because it looks like it’s constantly moving, just out of view of the characters and the audience.

It’s that slow, deliberate creep that sets the tempo of the first feature by Natalie Erika James. Working from a script she wrote with the novelist Christian White, “Relic” is a rich, satisfying chiller. It’s a bundle of anxieties shot through with scares too deft to call attention to themselves. James knows how to signal the most frightening things with the smallest turn of the screw.

James, who is Japanese-Australian, draws on the deep horror-movie traditions of both cultures to create something new. She turns the haunted house into a manifestation of dementia.

Edna (Robyn Nevin), who suffers from Alzheimer’s, is missing. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) travel to her home in rural Victoria, Australia, to look for her. They find rooms packed with the belongings of a former life, now gone to seed. The awful mold is everywhere. Days pass with no sign of Edna.

Then Kay hears the whistle of a tea kettle in the kitchen. It is Edna. She is dazed and barefoot. Her long gray hair is knotted in muddy tendrils. She appears to be injured, having a dark, weird bruise on her chest. Where has she been? All she can say is, “I suppose I went out.”

James authentically depicts the signs of mental disintegration in a horror-movie context. The furniture’s been moved. Treasured items are thrown out. There are Post-it notes everywhere. On one reminder are the ominous words: “Don’t follow it.”

As the house begins to reflect what is happening in Edna’s crumbling mind and compresses and tightens around Kay and Sam, the woman and the structure briefly become one terrifying entity and the fear of dementia encloses us. The cinematographer Charles Sarroff augments every shot with a crushing mood of oppression. The trees in the forest near Edna’s home seem to come to claustrophobic life.

“Relic” is about decay and death, fear and despair. Mortimer, Nevin and Heathcote, who make an excellent ensemble, play their roles wide-eyed and hesitant. Their dialogue, lean and spare, is often veiled in hidden meaning. The final scene is a remarkable demonstration of mourning and sensitivity, a point where, united, the three women meet the earthly and the supernatural.

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