'Relic' Is the Most Beautiful Horror Movie of the Year

Director Natalie Erika James and star Emily Mortimer discuss the movie's emotional resonance and its stunning, unexpected conclusion.

relic movie emily mortimer
IFC Films
IFC Films

This post contains spoilers for Relic. 

When Emily Mortimer was filming the haunting, moving final scene of Relic, one of the best horror movies of the year available now to rent, she sent some weird messages to co-star Bella Heathcote. "I wrote a text saying, 'I just spent all morning peeling the skin off my dead mother,'" she says laughing during a recent interview. 

The actual moment, as depicted in Natalie Erika James' debut feature, is absurdist in a way, but also incredibly sorrowful. In this haunted house tale that is not so secretly about dealing with the decay of loved ones due to old age and dementia, it's an astonishing button. "It was just so bizarre," Mortimer says. "And, yet, again the experience of it did feel like a kind of very cathartic one." 

Mortimer plays Kay, a woman who returns to her childhood home, daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) in tow, when her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) mysteriously goes missing. When Edna returns, her arrival is just as unexplained as her disappearance. James started writing the film on a trip to Japan to visit her grandmother. "She had Alzheimer's and this particular trip was notable for me because it was the first time she couldn't remember who I was," James recalls. "I had all these feelings of guilt about not having seen her as often as I thought I should have. She also lived in this, to me, quite scary Japanese house that I'd always been quite terrified of as a kid." James was inspired by stories coming out of Japan about elderly people suffering "lonely deaths," where they're found in their homes long after they died, essentially abandoned by their families. 

IFC Relic

In mining her experience with an aging loved one, James crafted a story that taps into the universal horror of dementia and death. Mortimer, who lost her father 10 years ago, immediately recognized the circumstances. "He wasn't quite himself," Mortimer recalls. "And I can remember the moment where this person who has never not looked at me with absolute love and adoration suddenly looked at me like I was a stranger. It was so disconcerting and so strange and horrible. I do feel like that moment in my life was scarier than anything I'd seen in a horror film." 

Kay and Sam find a house that appears to be possessed by some sort of evil. There's a mold oozing from the walls, and Edna alternates between behavior expected of an old, addled woman, and something more insidious. James and her co-writer Christian White let the tense relationships between the three generations live in subtext. "I feel like there's a lot of guilt that goes into being both a daughter and a mother," Mortimer says. 

The tension builds to a climax that is both terrifying and, from Mortimer's perspective, darkly funny as Kay and Sam are trapped in the house's walls and have to break free, ultimately fighting off their decaying elder. "I was so engrossed and yet I was laughing sometimes out of just kind of like, wow, you can't believe the kind of audacity of it at times," Mortimer says of watching the film. But it's the beats after that battle that get at Relic's mournful heart. Finally calmed, Kay sits alongside her mother on a bed and slowly begins peeling her skin off to ultimately reveal the otherworldly being occupying her soul. James thinks that imagery came to her from a childhood nightmare.  

IFC Film

"I used to have this kind of recurring nightmare as a kid about finding my mum in a field of red flowers and it was essentially her funeral, and when I eventually got to her casket, she was just a skeleton," she says. "Maybe that has something to do with it. You really see that kind of really fragile human physique reflected in the other or the creature at the end. Even though the creature is very heightened, and it has the texture of the black mold that's found in the cabin as well. It still has this really human fragility to it. That was really important to us because it really mimics how people are at the end of their lives when they are wasting away." 

With the production's limited budget, James had her crew build an animatronic covered in prosthetics that Mortimer could slowly peel off. The muscles on the puppets face were hooked up to controls. "I was blown away by the nuance of the emotion that the puppet could convey," James says. 

After all of the epidermis that kept Edna recognizable as a human is gone, Kay curls up with her, eventually joined by Sam, three women bound by their hereditary attachment and the fear that comes with it. It's a quiet moment, forged in both fear and love. "It was incredible," Mortimer says of performing the scene. "It really felt like a symbolic tableau that felt very reminiscent of a feeling that I had experienced in my own life and a coming together of family in the face of this horrible, sad moment. But how that does bring you together, even if it's just for that moment, and then everyone goes off on their lives and life gets messy again and confused and people fall out again. But in that moment, there's something very powerful about the journey that people make when they die." 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.