In ‘Relic,’ Natalie Erika James Explores Dementia While Avoiding the ‘Crazy Old Lady Horror Trope’

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Director Natalie Erika James and actor Emily Mortimer at the premiere of 'Relic.' © Sundance Institute | Photo by Becca Haydu

The seed for the story that would become Relic was planted in writer/director Natalie Erika James’s head years ago when she visited her grandmother, who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, at her grandmother’s home in rural Japan.

“It was the first time where she couldn’t remember who I was, and so there were a lot of feelings of guilt, about having not gone earlier and spending more time with her,” the Melbourne-based filmmaker told the audience after the project screened at the Park Avenue Theatre on Monday night.

It was really important to me that the audience really felt for her and her experience, and that it wasn’t just a crazy old lady horror trope.

—Natalie Erika James

“In combination with that, she also lived in this really creepy traditional Japanese house, and I’d always been scared of it as a kid,” James added. “I think those two elements really fused in my mind.”

Though she set Relic in the small town of Creswick, Australia, she folded in her long-held admiration for Asian horror into her script, which centers around the relationships between Kay (Emily Mortimer); Kay’s mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin); and Kay’s daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote) and how they cope when Edna’s mental health begins to slowly decline.

“What [Asian] horror films [do] really well is build the slow anticipation within the frame,” James said. “It’s not as much about the jump scares but about the slow creep, whether it’s something moving or focusing in on something or it’s the menace slowly coming toward you.”

Indeed, James’s film begins with a slow cascade of water trickling down the creaky carpeted stairs in Edna’s cavernous home, where mold has slowly begun to spread across the walls. When Kay and Sam drive over to check on Edna, the house is empty, and Post-It notes are scattered throughout the home in increasingly illegible handwriting—reminders that range from ordinary (“remember to turn off the water”) to haunting (“they’re coming”).


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The crew shot the film at several locations in Melbourne, one of which seemed a little too suited for the story being told, as Heathcoat explained: “I don’t know how they found this place, because it was someone who had inherited it from their parents, but he hadn’t kept up any of the bills. There was no running water, there was no gas, there was no electricity; it was really dilapidated, like he was squatting in his own house.”

Although Edna’s dementia begins to manifest itself in increasingly disturbing ways (major credit to the film’s practical effects team, not to mention the production designer), James was careful to preserve sympathy for her. “It was really important to me that the audience really felt for her and her experience, and that it wasn’t just a crazy old lady horror trope,” she stated.

“For us, it was [about] embracing a loved one’s true form or acknowledging the state that they are in, coming to terms with their mortality,” she finished, describing the film’s gruesome but moving final scene. “The fragility and the humanity of the sadness of it is very true to life.”


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Director Natalie Erika James and actor Emily Mortimer at the premiere of 'Relic.' © Sundance Institute | Photo by Becca Haydu