By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
Creswick is a small town of around 3000 people just outside Ballarat, a regional area in the Australian southern state of Victoria. Japanese-Australian filmmaker Natalie Erika James has solid professional form working in this part of the country; almost a decade ago she posted on Facebook about prop shopping in second hand stores in Ballarat for her earlier 2012 short Tritch, and more recently has directed a number of trailers for the Ballarat museum/historical theme park Sovereign Hill, a major tourist attraction in the region that seeks to bring to life the colonial gold rush era of the mid 19th century that remains the region’s biggest claim to fame.
Developed from her 2017 short film Creswick, James’s feature debut Relic stunned audiences and critics at Sundance before being picked up for US distribution by IFC Midnight, who have just released the film in the US on streaming services, selected theaters and drive-ins. And make no mistake, Relic deserves the hype; it is powerful, sensitive, original and deeply, deeply moving. While conversions such as these often position the original short as little more than a curious footnote when addressing the feature-length expansion, it is significant that in the case of Creswick that the location flagged in the film’s very title – as well as the narrative bare bones of the earlier film itself – endure so significantly into the extended feature.
It’s a safe bet that anyone who grew up in Melbourne – the closest major city to Ballarat – would probably be familiar with this part of the world. Sovereign Hill was a near-inescapable destination for quasi-educational school excursions and family holidays; it was more than a day out, but a shared location in the collective memory. But sleepy little Creswick hasn’t hit the popular Australian imagination in quite the same way. When I asked a friend who lives in Ballarat about Creswick, she delivered her vision of the town with a whispered air of antipodean Lynchian mystique. Almost conspiratorially, I was told it’s weird; people, it is rumoured, live in the bushland surrounding the small town in their cars, only coming out at night.
Whether anecdotal gossip or hardened local mythology who knows, but watching Relic these words resonate with the deep sense that this indeed is a strange place. Set in the home of aging Edna (Robyn Nevin), the film opens with her disappearance at the opening of the film, and it is into this very same bushland that her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer), granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) and the local police go searching for Edna who they fear has fallen victim to the mental decline associated with dementia. As they arrive from the city to search for Edna, there’s an ambient guilt that permeates Kay’s response to her mother’s disappearance that bleeds at times into both guilt and defensiveness. For her part, Sam – an underemployed gallerist – also appears to be searching for something unspoken that is missing in her life, beyond the physical disappearance of her beloved yet clearly deteriorating grandmother.
From its very first moments, Edna’s house – despite her absence within it – is marked by a sense of both the haunted and the haunting, with lingering images of an empty bed, an empty chair, speaking of a powerful presence of someone who simply is not there. This takes a sensorial edge as Kay and Sam wander through the house, Sam at one point putting on one of Edna’s cardigans and inhaling deeply, indulging in her grandmother’s scent. While Edna re-appears very early in the film, intergenerational tensions – allegiances and betrayals – propel the drama. The bulk of the movie continues to tease out this grey area between absent and present in a range of ways, all the while making literal in many ways the notion of being ‘not all there’.
Edna certainly shows all the signs of dementia, and Kay and Sam each in their own way begin to deeply question what part they can play in practical terms to help. Kay talks to herself; she is scared of things under the bed and is prone to sudden violent and sadistic outbursts that we both see for ourselves and hear about through other characters. Edna also speaks with great terror of an encroaching ‘it’, which of course works in a fairly direct manner of the way that dementia is increasingly affecting her life.
It is this ‘it’ within which the power of James’s films finds its enormous punch; as we can visibly see in Sally Potter’s sadly pedestrian The Roads Not Taken (2020), as a thematic point of interest and plot device dementia contains all the elements for a straightforward drama without the added whistles and bells a horror film necessarily demands. But Potter’s film provides a useful point of comparison here: while it received unusually tepid critical reception for this otherwise revered filmmaker in its fairly milquetoast treatment of the subject, with Relic James utilises the symbolic and metaphorical potency that horror affords to do something much grander, much more abstract and without question more emotionally devastating and meaningful.
Largely, this is achieved through James’s extraordinary grasp on how cinematic space can work in relation to the uncanny. To call a house or a building in a movie a character has long been a critical cliché, but it is regardless very true of Relic, especially; the spirit of a long-destroyed shack on the property grounds near Edna’s house dominates the film’s events, as the site where an elderly grandfather once lived and died alone and neglected. Saving only a striking stained-glass window and transplanting that into the door of the main house, the legacy of rot and decay and darkness of these grim family memories literally stains both Edna and her house itself.
As the space within the home increasingly reveals itself to us in all its complexities, it is a space which is both a functional living environment and a sort of Wunderkammer of familial memories. Endless piles of linen and boxes of photographs and random trinkets increasingly build a maze both literal and psychological of sorts, and the spatial incongruities of this home is drenched with complexities that would make Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining blush. As the film folds out concertina-style into an emotional and architectural labyrinth that our trinity of women navigate to reach the climax to their journey together, James’s influences appear to be drawn from German Expressionism as they are a homage to her oft-cited passion for J-horror.
Creswick works as a location for Relic because of the tension between its specificity and its universality. It is both somewhere and nowhere simultaneously, just as Edna is both someone and no one simultaneously. Of all the physical traces of her losing her grip on reality, it is the trail of post-it notes that she leaves for herself around the house that both Kay and Sam increasingly discover that reveal just how deep this sense of losing herself runs: ‘My name is Edna’, reads one. ‘I am loved’, reads another. These notes recall at times the trail of breadcrumbs left by Hansel and Gretel as they too embark upon their own journey into the woods, seen through the lens of family trauma and dominated by the figure of a monstrous older woman; here, however, the path is hoped to lead back to Edna herself.
James both fundamentally understands on an intuitive level and actively complicates – even subverts – the close association between fairy tales and horror, the former full to the brim with lush tales of twisted relationships, dark magic, and the very human desire for stories to end with a happily ever after, regardless of how impossible circumstances may suggest that outcome may be.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written six books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the Bram Stoker Award nominated Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). Alexandra is a board member of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a programmer at Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the United States.