As a small child I used to lie awake in my bed at night, crying and petrified to go to sleep in case I didn’t wake up again. It was a very particular form of panic—thick and palpable, laden with despair. It’s distinct from the oscillating undercurrent of anxiety that afflicts me in adulthood. That fear weighed heavy because, unlike the widely touted monster under the bed, it was founded in truth that—albeit unlikely at that age—we all die.
From the age of 25, the human body begins to degenerate. Our cells die or lose functionality faster than our bodies can replace them. This is ageing. If you subscribe to the findings of a study by researchers at the Simon Fraser University, our brains go into decline even earlier. If you give birth, it’s possible that you’ll give the ageing process a (likely unwelcome) power-up. Youth—as they say—is fleeting.
Perhaps this is why so many of us try desperately to draw it out. We cling to youth’s unmarred aesthetic and deny the inevitability of ageing and death. We sterilise and compartmentalise old age and its symptoms, to the detriment of our “ageing population”—a euphemism applied to the increasing proportion of Australians over the age of 65.
This attitude is on open display in Relic, a 2020 film streaming on Stan, written by Natalie Erika James and Christian White, and directed by James. Under the guise of a horror drama, Relic explores themes of death, loss of cognition, familial relationships and isolation. It is the casual potency of these themes, along with nods to Japanese cinema, and the adoption of an Australian gothic aesthetic—which merges a timeless rural setting with pressing contemporary issues—that elevates a conventional horror flick into something stickier.
The film follows three generations of women—Edna (Robyn Nevin), her orderly and cautious daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer), and Edna’s audacious, twenty-something granddaughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote). Edna lives alone in the family home, located in an unnamed town in remote, bushy Australia. But she’s gone missing, so Kay and Sam make their way to the isolated homestead in hope of finding her. When Edna returns, muddy footed, glassy-eyed and elusive, she’s changed. And she’s not alone. Kay and Sam grapple with an increasingly unpredictable Edna, who—wracked with paranoia, fear, and confusion—deteriorates both mentally and physically, until she embodies the very thing that torments her.
Edna, suffering from what is portrayed as rapidly progressing dementia, is haunted by a dark spectre. Appearing fleetingly in backgrounds and mirrored reflections, the shadowy figure is hinted to be Edna’s grandfather, seeking revenge against familial deserters and for his grotesque, isolated death on the outskirts of the property. This spectre is also an effigy of death—contrarily living within each of the three women, ubiquitous, menacing, and increasingly vivid and inescapable as it fights to consume first Edna, and then her daughter and granddaughter.
This inexorable threat initially manifests as psychological degeneration before escalating to the physical realm, a duplicitous battle between mind and body that befits the all-consuming distress that devastates the three women, and one that is familiar to many—old and young—who live among us.
Inspired by her grandmother’s “creepy“ traditional Japanese home in which she spent her childhood Summers, Relic’s director, James’ has rendered Edna’s house as the fourth central character. A multi-story home of modest grandeur, its interior is lovingly cluttered yet colourless, possessing only the residue of warmth evident in family photographs and faded soft furnishings. The stained glass window in the front door is the last remnant of Edna’s ancestors. Edna displays only the prettiest aspects of the past—smiling photographs, coloured glass—denying the ugliness of her own history, much like Australia does as a country.
Edna openly laments keeping any part of the house, as though destroying the physical reminders of her past could prevent time and death from finding her—next in line. Over the course of the film, the family home loses familiarity. It decays and twists into an Escher-esque labyrinth—a fluctuating reconstruction that conveys a discomforting portrayal of the terror of losing one’s cognition.
James knows firsthand the pain and difficulty of watching a family member suffer through dementia. James’ grandmother had Alzheimer’s, which James describes as having a specific torturous quality. She attributes the inspiration for the film to that lived horror, as well as the shift in relationships and the new roles of care, which occur when people age.
In Relic we watch Kay grappling with her mother’s loss of cognitive ability. Plagued with guilt and worry, and beleaguered by what to do, she explores options for her mother’s care. The aged care facility that Kay visits is spruiked by the peppy employee in a platinum-plated sales pitch as offering “ocean views” and “five-star living”. The reality is that the room is stark, clinical, and a porridge coloured contrast to the lived-in-ness of Edna’s home and the richness of the dense forest that surrounds it. An elderly resident stares down Kay as she tours the facility, giving rise to a looming sense of foreboding, and raising the question—what is really going on here?
It’s a fleeting scene, but in a country where aged care has been subject to scrutiny and is the current focus of a number of government sanctioned reforms and reviews, this aged care home visit feels particularly pointed.
In Australia, aged care is increasingly privatised, drawing criticism from advocates concerned about transparency and accountability. Reported examples of elder abuse in aged care facilities, ranging from mistreatment, neglect, lack of proper nutrition and hygiene, to physical and sexual abuse are extensive and horrific.
COVID-19 has reached crisis levels in many NSW and Victorian aged care homes. As of 12 September 2020, the reported death toll for coronavirus fatalities in Australian Government subsidised residential aged care facilities stood at 593, raising further concerns about the management of the sector. While the Government has announced additional funding for aged care to address the pandemic, and initiatives to increase reporting and management responsibilities of providers in relation to elder abuse, it doesn’t feel like enough.
Kay, like many Australians, is tortured by the choice between providing inadequate care herself or entrusting the safety of her mother to strangers. Themes of abandonment of the elderly are repeated throughout the film. In our post-Kardashian, social media-saturated world, there is an ongoing obsession with youth and beauty, particularly the female kind. It’s not surprising that our ageing population is so often overlooked.
In one scene, Edna is shown sitting despondent in the bath, she claws at her blackened, rotting flesh, eventually tearing soft strips from her chest with her fingernails, as a mortified Kay screams at her through an internal window. A stark contrast is the depiction of granddaughter Sam in that same bath—the camera lingers, allowing us to revel in the suppleness of her skin, her smooth high cheekbone, her flawless youth. In another scene, Edna frantically ingests family photographs, an attempt to both embody the past and destroy it.
At the climax of the film Kay and Sam disassociate from Edna—“It’s not Gran anymore!”—a development foretold by earlier scenes, such as when Kay makes cliched excuses as to why she hasn’t spoken to Edna in weeks, “Work’s been crazy, you know how it is”.
The elderly are often passed over, forgotten, and dismissed as remnants of their former selves. It is not usual to see an older woman as the protagonist of a film. Yet even as the film centres on Edna, her dialogue is sparse. She is largely spoken about, not to. The film takes place in her home. The characters are surrounded by her photographs, her belongings, signs of her life, yet she is something of an enigma.
Edna is presented as other from her daughter and granddaughter, a distinction which becomes increasingly obvious as Edna begins to embody the figure that has been haunting her. At the end, the brutality of Kay beating her own decrepit mother in an effort to save herself is shocking, serving as both a symbolic rejection of death and a comment on the widely reported elder abuse, which has occurred in Australian aged care homes in recent times.
The film decompresses with what is perhaps it’s only moment of unbridled tenderness. After the violence, it’s a jarring scene that simultaneously cradles love and impeccable body-horror gore. I won’t spoil it but thinking back I am reminded of peeling a mango. The scene abruptly breaks the tension as Edna finally finds peace alongside her daughter’s recognition, acceptance, and maternal comfort. It is a poignant, albeit gruesome, depiction of familial devotion and the role reversal which comes with age.
Today, parenthood seems to accelerate my time. I’m still young compared to Kay or Edna, and I am much more at home in my thirties than my twenties. But I am also much more conscious of the passing of time. Stan’s tagline for the film is: “a sinister presence haunts a family home”. While it is naff, it’s apt. It’s uncomfortable to dwell on the inevitable facts of old age. It haunts us all with its crooked assuredness that one day it will happen to us too—not least of all because we see the way that older Australians are treated and do not wish that for ourselves.
Growing older means losing those that came before us, those to whom we are so inextricably connected, whom we love and are loved by, and whose passing physically and existentially advances our own. Through the prism of horror, Relic shows us the most painful and unavoidable of truths, but also highlights the defiant beauty that is connection and love in the face of inevitable loss.