By Tyler Aquilina
July 10, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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Relic is the rare horror movie that's as likely to bring a tear to your eye as a chill to your bones. The first feature from Australian writer-director Natalie Erika James, the film blends the psychological and the supernatural in the mode of acclaimed works like The Babadook and Hereditary, but arguably goes even further in rooting its onscreen terrors in the horror, and pathos, of reality.

"It's a brilliant genre movie, but it transcends the genre, like one of the great horror films," star Emily Mortimer tells EW. "To me, it felt like [James] had used the genre to help explore a really horrifying part of real life, which is very underexplored in our culture: death."

Specifically, the long, slow death of an aging loved one. Relic, on VOD and in select theaters now, stars Mortimer and Bella Heathcote as Kay and Sam, a mother and daughter who rush to Kay's childhood home after her elderly mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), disappears. There, they find evidence of Edna's worsening dementia, but after she returns as mysteriously as she disappeared, it becomes increasingly unclear whether it's merely illness or something more otherworldly that's haunting her.

Relic is unabashedly a genre film; James has a penchant for David Cronenberg-esque body horror, and Edna's decaying, possibly haunted house is an indelibly creepy setting. But it also features several scenes that could easily be dropped into a dark domestic drama, as when Edna, forgetting she gave a cherished ring to Sam, tries to rip it from her granddaughter's finger. James drew extensively on her personal experience while writing the film: her grandmother suffered from Alzheimer's disease for several years, and died in 2019.

"Just watching her relationship with my mother change over time, and my direct relationship with her, that whole experience really was the starting point," James explains. "I feel like the writing process was kind of a form of therapy or catharsis, in dredging up all of the emotional feelings. And in some ways, it can be a really good indication [of] if you've hit on something truthful, if you become emotional when you're writing."

Jackson Finter/IFC Films

Mortimer, too, found making the film to be a therapeutic experience. "Horror, when it's used right, is really liberating for an actor, because you have to sort of go for it," she says. "You have to play the terror that is going on inside you, that you would normally hold back a little bit. Otherwise, it doesn't really work. You're basically acting what's happening in your gut, so it's kind of an amazing feeling. It's like therapy in a weird way, because it's so cathartic."

That's not to say the shoot was an easy one. "It's a hard film to work on, because there's not a lot of levity in it, you know?" James says. "I think Bella had to cry for four days straight. So it's really emotionally taxing on them. We were all joking that we'd all do a comedy after Relic to give ourselves a break."

But Mortimer has nothing but praise for the director, saying she knew when she first read the script that James was "an auteur filmmaker."

"Every good filmmaker, whether it's Martin Scorsese or Natalie James, both has the courage to put the weird s--- that they've got inside their head on film, and has the confidence to create a world. They know the world, and they know it so well that it's very easy for you to step into it," Mortimer enthuses. "I just knew that she was the real deal. I just knew that she had a vision, that she was creating a world that was entirely her own, and that she was perfectionistic enough to make sure that it didn't get compromised."

Indeed, James seems to have no intention of venturing into more straight-ahead, thrill-based horror. "If there's no underlying thematic drive that relates to the horrors of real life or a real emotional truth, it doesn't really interest me," she says with a laugh. "It's so at the core of [Relic], that I couldn't separate the two." She says she's been working on multiple scripts while in quarantine, including a "Japanese folk horror" she compares to The Wicker Man and Rosemary's Baby.

In the meantime, she can bask in the satisfaction of having finished Relic, which has racked up critical acclaim since premiering at the 2020 edition of Sundance, one of the last pre-COVID film festivals. "You know, you think you're lucky if your agent and your mom, basically, see little films like this one," Mortimer says. "But sometimes it works, and it has an appeal, and I really feel that this one was one of those, and I feel so lucky to have been a part of it."

For James, however, there were two people whose reviews mattered most. "My parents were able to come with me to our premiere, and they hadn't seen the film," she explains. "So my nerves that night were tenfold, because I just really wanted them to be on board with the film, and it would've horrified me if they'd been appalled by telling our family story through this horror lens, and they'd hated it.

"But thankfully they loved it, and it really resonated with them, and it was kind of beautiful to be able to share it with them in that way," she continues. "We actually found out about Relic being programmed in Sundance about a week before my grandmother passed. And my mom said to me that she'd been able to tell her mom, and she felt like she would have been really happy that something from that experience had been positive." Remember what we said about the tears?

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