Object of Reverence: Natalie Erika James’s Relic
“Around that time my daughter and I had this exchange:
Anne, imagine if the world had nothing in it.
Do you mean nothing at all–just darkness–or a world without objects?
I mean a world without things: no houses, chairs, or cars. A world with only people and trees and dirt.
What do you think would happen?
People would make things. We would make things with trees and dirt.”
—Anne Boyer, “Garments Against Women”
The physical resides at the heart of the horror film, with the genre relying on both our love and fear of the body, our own bodies, and the frailties therein. Murderers threaten to slash them up, while zombies and spirits emerge through their dehumanization and dematerialization. Indeed, the physical experience of watching these films, the where and how and when, is just as important as the skills of the make-up artist or the cinematographer in determining how deep into our nightmares we are able to go as spectators.
I, like so many others, have missed seeing movies in theaters over the past few months. Watching at home doesn’t make for a worse experience so much as a different one, but the shift from the theater to the home, for me, has been especially hard when it comes to watching horror films. This past July (after receiving a negative COVID test) I went back to Ohio to visit my parents for a few weeks. When I arrived the local theater chain, Atlas Cinemas, was open and showing a mix of repertory films like Jaws (1975) and Footloose (1984), as well as smaller new releases that were coming out on VOD in cities like New York where theaters hadn’t (and still haven’t) reopened. With cases starting to rise in Ohio and Atlas Cinema not having implemented a mask mandate, it didn’t seem like a good idea to go, even if I desperately wanted to. But when the theaters started offering private screenings for 50 bucks a pop, which for my parents and me would mean paying about the same (or less) than it would cost for all of us to attend a screening in New York City, going was a no-brainer. And when I learned that one of the movies we could select for our private screenings was the new Australian horror film Relic (2020), I couldn’t have been more excited.
Australian horror often tends to revolve around someone finding themselves in the middle of a vast nowhere, alone in a wide-open space and dealing with some kind of horrific circumstances—think Long Weekend (1978) or Road Games (1981)—but Natalie Erika James’s Relic is a much more physically intimate, often claustrophobic movie. The spaces in James’s film are filled with soft light and well-worn familial objects with a palpable sense of history. What’s scary isn’t the unknown but rather the deeply known and the process of coming to terms with that knowledge.
The story centers on a family of women: matriarch Edna (Robyn Nevin), her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer), and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote). When Edna, living alone in the family home, goes missing, Kay and Sam return from the city to see what’s going on and to hopefully find her. Upon arrival it becomes clear that all is not well. The house is a mess and notes and reminders are posted throughout, suggesting Edna has been in a state of decline for quite some time. Things get even weirder when Edna suddenly reappears, having no real idea of where she was or what she was doing there.
Not having seen a movie in a theater for over four months, I became acutely aware of the material details as Relic unfolded in front of me, of the smaller and less obvious things happening in the frame and the impact they were making on the film. A unique sense of unease creeped in early on during the opening sequence where Edna is sitting in her living room. As the scene progresses, the horror slowly becomes visible in the form of a shadow moving ever so slightly in the background. It was so subtle that part of me still doubts it was even there and I wondered: would I have even been able to notice it if I was watching at home on a television? And even if I could see it, would it be as terrifying? On the big screen, even a trace of a shadow can appear at such a scale that it could envelope us if it wanted to.
Relic in particular benefits from the theatrical experience. While so many modern horror films rely on scares in the form of grotesque violence—the fear residing less in the audiovisual construction of the scene and more in the idea of torture, dismemberment, impending death—James puts her faith in the unexplained crinkle of a plastic dry-cleaning bag hanging in a closet. Being able to hear that crinkle in surround sound, having it engulf you, and being able to see the very slight movement across the transparent plastic places you much more firmly in that environment, in that moment. It’s a difference that matters in a movie that focuses so intensely on physical spaces, both the home and the human body, and the processes therein. The state of disarray in the house mirrors the disarray happening within Edna and her own mental and corporeal deterioration.
After we left the theater, I spent the car ride home thinking about what it would have been like to watch Relic at home, my experience being so deeply shaped by the theatrical presentation. I knew that the rich details of the film probably wouldn’t have been as clear or as scary, but it also seems very likely that watching a movie like this, one so intently and deeply tied to the figure of the familial abode, at home, in my childhood home no less, would have brought with it its own specific terrors. Ultimately, as we move forward in a cinematic landscape where the theatrical will seemingly not be the standard means of exhibition, at least for some time, it is more and more clear that critical thinking and writing about films should begin to encompass the situation in which a film is watched. The more we acknowledge cinema as a fluid art, one that transforms itself based on the myriad of ways in which it can be accessed, the deeper we’ll be able to go into what makes cinema so meaningful to so many of us and possibly—hopefully—find new ways to transcend the already established forms and norms.
The final scene in the film, grotesque and yet filled with incredible compassion, suggests that survival, the characters’ but also perhaps humanity’s, depends not on escaping from that which haunts us, but instead, on embracing it. Which brings me back to Anne Boyer, here from her most recent book The Undying (2019):
Mortality is a gorgeous framework. What a relief to have not been protected, I decided, to not be a subtle or delicate person whose inner experience is made only of taste and polite feeling; what a relief not to collect tiny wounds as if they are the greatest injuries while all the rest of the world always, really, actually bleeds. It’s yet another error in perception that those with social protection can look at those who have at times lacked it, and imagine that weakness is in the bleeder, not those who have never bled. Those who diminish the beauty and luxury of survival must do so because they have been so rarely almost dead.