Is Relic the story of a haunted house, or a haunted mind? Australian writer-director Natalie Erika James keeps the answer close through most of her debut, a sinister slow-blooming portrait of domestic horror.
When a neighbor calls to say he hasn't seen the elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin) for days, her harried daughter Kay (British actress Mortimer, sending her accent Down Under) drives in from Melbourne to see for herself, bringing her own college-age daughter, Sam ( Heathcote), along.
A local search party yields nothing; then one day, Edna simply reappears in the kitchen, eyes untroubled and long gray ropes of hair coiled down her back. She's vague about where she's been but otherwise seems nearly like herself again, peacefully shuffling around and working on her candle art.
So why does Kay keep having strange, graphic dreams, and what's that odd rustle in the linen closet that catches Sam's eye? When Edna, frightened, confesses that the house feels bigger than it used to, is that just a widow's loneliness talking or something else?
Some of James' moves are familiar ones; grisly images and jump scares that a certain kind of Blumhouse horror lover has been weaned on for years. And her pacing can be leisurely sometimes to the point of stasis. But she's also sharply attuned to the psychology between her three characters — all the acute angles that arise between mothers and daughters, devotion and fear and resentment rolled into one.
Relic opens July 10 in select theaters and on demand.