By Leah Greenblatt
July 10, 2020 at 02:18 PM EDT
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Jackson Finter/IFC Films

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 Emily Mortimer, sending her accent Down Under) drives in from Melbourne to see for herself, bringing her own college-age daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), along.

The home, located somewhere indeterminately woodsy and rural, shows no signs of struggle, only a muffled, eerie air of neglect. Black mold creeps up behind headboards, dust and dirty dishes lie undisturbed, Post-it Notes — some banal reminders to pay a bill or take a pill, others more cryptic — scatter across random surfaces.

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.

If the setup feels quotidian, the tension still climbs steadily, egged on by Edna's increasing confusion and cognitive decline and Kay and Sam's conflicting ideas of what should be done about it. But it's the final scene, it turns out, that James has saved her chips for: a haunting tableau both gruesome and beautiful and somehow, full of love. B

Relic opens July 10 in select theaters and on demand.

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