Relic (2020) begins in a dark house. An old woman– her name is Edna, but I’ll call her Grandmother– stands naked in the living room, water running from the bath upstairs is spilling down. Grandmother seems unconcerned. She is distracted, looking at a thin, dark figure, unseen by the audience until its hand moves out of frame. The opening scene ends there. It’s disturbing. And it generates a huge question: who is the dark figure?
We transition to Mother and Daughter, they fill in the other two generations of Grandmother’s relatives. Mother and Daughter are driving to visit Grandmother. The police contact them because Grandmother hasn’t been seen for a few days. Grandmother is old. She is prone to forgetfulness, bouts of anger, signs that some audience members may recognize as dementia in their own aging relatives. Relic traverses the line between supernatural hyperbole and the reality of growing older.
And that might be an issue for the film.
I liked Relic but I only started to like it during its final 20 minutes. Throughout the film I was understanding the haunting of the three women to be literal. It’s a horror movie after all, and anything is fair game: ghosts, zombies, demons, you name it. And the viewer was told to expect that in a sense. As mentioned before, the shadowy black figure is established immediately in the opening scene. It seems like it should be an antagonistic force throughout the film. There are even numerous nightmare sequences in which the shadowy figure’s identity could be hinted at. Mother has a recurring nightmare about her great-grandfather whose old house makes up the foundation of Grandmother’s home. The great-grandfather is shown in a horrifying montage of decay and his figure is black and skeletal, it seems like a precursor to what the black figure developed into.
So with those scenes, the foundations of the old house within Grandmother’s now haunted house, the shadowy black figure, etc. It was hard not to take the haunting as a literal and specific occurrence. However, I found Relic to be a much more interesting film when it ditched the shadowy figure and addressed the audience head on with its commitment to the real horror: growing old.
After a dizzying and anxiety-inducing maze sequence toward the end of the film. Mother and Daughter successfully escape a deranged Grandmother who has turned completely against them and has been trying to harm them. Daughter wants to run. She beckons Mother to come and to leave Grandmother who, to her, is no longer Grandmother. But Mother can’t. She sees the decay and realizes her responsibility– wonderfully foreshadowed by an earlier quote “she changed your diapers, now you change hers.” A reversal of care from parent to child to child to parent. Daughter flees, seemingly unable to fathom this kindness and grace Mother is showing to Grandmother.
A disgusting yet tender moment follows. Mother carries Grandmother upstairs to her bedroom. Grandmother is covered with black flesh wounds that have been growing deeper throughout the film. Mother slowly begins to peel the skin away, revealing a black, tar-like skeletal body– just like the great-grandfather’s body of the nightmare sequences. After skinning Grandmother and laying her down on the bed, Mother cuddles her, in a fetal position. The Mother’s duty to her parent has been completed. Now, Grandmother can rest and be at peace. Daughter even returns. She sees the passiveness of Grandmother and realizes that she was no monster, she was just alone and afraid. Daughter joins the two on the bed and completes the generational cycle. As she stares at the back of Mother’s neck, she notices the beginnings of the black decay…
So what does this say? The ending of Relic left me with a really fantastic metaphor for the cycle of aging. The decaying process from the ending scene altered the literal grounding that might have been established by the decay Grandmother undergoes at the beginning. It might be taken as a specific curse, but as the decay spreads to Mother, the film seems to be saying that this is a process that happens to everyone. What is unique is the conditions by which it happens. For the great-grandfather, it seems that he was abandoned, left to rot by his family who could have cared for him but didn’t. Grandmother seemed to be heading towards that fate, but the appearance of Mother and the tenderness of the final scene indicate that Grandmother has completed her transformation somewhat gracefully. Now, looking toward the future, Daughter must maintain the relationship she has with Mother and make sure that she does not have a demented breakdown like Grandmother did. The decay seemed to be presented as an inevitability. What happens during that inevitability of aging is dependent on who is there for you in your older years and the support they can offer.
Relic sort of misleads you to thinking there is more to the haunting until it tells you, by the end, that this was no haunting after all. It is simply a terrifying reality.