Sometimes the scariest thing we can imagine is coming home. That's the case in the Australian haunted house stunner Relic. Emily Mortimer stars as a divorced mother who travels with twenty-something daughter (Bella Heathcote) to the home of her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin), an ailing widow suffering from dementia. When this muddled matriarch complains that the things in the house move and that someone stalks her in rooms unfamiliar, her family believes it's just the disease attacking her memory. But what if something monstrous really is out to get this beloved grandmother?
Out of its Sundance debut, Relic won resounding praise for its slow-burn style of terror and its thoughtful exploration of the horrors of dementia. All the more impressive, this spooky and spectacular film is a feature directorial debut. Awed by her out-the-gate awesomeness, SYFY FANGRRLS spoke with Japanese-Australian writer/director Natalie Erika James via Zoom to uncover her path into filmmaking and the personal stories that led to Relic.
James' journey as a filmmaker began at 13, growing up in Australia. "I started very young, in terms of making crappy films with friends," she recalls, citing that her earliest efforts were parodies of the Harry Potter films. "Oh God, this is so embarrassing," she laughed. "[We were] clearly taking the piss, even at this age. We rewrote the characters so instead of Harry finding out that he's a wizard, he finds out he's Australian. So then it's this journey about him having to deal with Australian culture at the age of 11."
From silly spoofs with friends, she got more serious, channeling her high school creativity into "a lot of pretentious art films." "I'll never show [them to] anyone," James said with a smile. "But they were enough to get me into film school."
Specifically, these got James into her dream school, the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne. It wasn't just her first choice, it was the only film school to which she applied. "I guess my reasoning was, if I wasn't good enough for that school, then I shouldn't be a filmmaker," she shared.
After graduating in 2013, James took production work in advertising, but always with an eye toward her goal to be a filmmaker. "I just made sure I kept directing," she explained. "Which is one of the things that one of my lecturers told me that I really took to heart, to just keep creating your own stuff. Even if that was music videos or short films or low-budget commercials, I just made sure I was in that role."
To that end, she and co-writer Christian White were working on the screenplay of Relic when they decided to create her 2017 horror short, Creswick. Like the feature that would follow, the short film follows a woman into her parent's home, where creepy clues reveal a horrific truth.
Creswick toured festivals, gathering acclaim and attention for James, which was the plan. "We already had the first draft of Relic," she recalls. "Then we very consciously thought, 'Okay, let's make a proof of concept that is more succinct.' So the story and the characters are different slightly, but the same tone, same settings, that kind of thing." The plan worked. Their smart and scary short caught the eye of Jake Gyllenhaal, as well as MCU helmers Anthony and Joe Russo, who all went on to serve as producers on Relic. Still, the film had some of its plans disrupted by other praised horror.
In both Creswick and Relic, the elderly parent has a craft hobby they enjoy. "The original idea came from my cinematographer (Charlie Sarroff), whose dad had dementia before he passed," James explained. "He had been an incredible musician. As his condition worsened, his music started to worsen, but he wasn't aware of that deterioration."
James and her team decided to use a visual hobby to display such deterioration in a subtle yet striking way. In Creswick, it's done with woodworking; in Relic, candle carving. However, the original plan for Relic's matriarch was to have her make delicate dollhouse furniture. "But then Hereditary came out," James said with a chuckle. "When we were close to finishing the script, we, my co-writer and my two Aussie crews as well, went out and saw [Hereditary]. And we all looked at each other at the end of the film and went, 'Yeah, the dollhouse furniture's got to go.'" She adds with a shrug, "So yeah, we still really wanted to give her a craft and that deterioration, so we settled on German candle carving."
The family drama at the core of Relic also came from a personal place. "My grandmother had Alzheimer's, and it was a really prolonged decline for her," James said. "I watched her relationship with my mother shift over time and the dynamic of that point when you have to start parenting your parents. I think my dad had something similar with his parents as well, so that was a really interesting and very heartbreaking kind of subject matter that I thought would be worthwhile exploring."
The haunted house conceit was likewise inspired by her maternal grandmother. "My grandmother lived in Japan in this creepy traditional Japanese house that was probably 150 years old. It always used to freak me the hell out as a kid, because I used to spend my summers there. So I think the combination of those two things, this kind of thematic focus and the creepy setting, was the starting point for Relic."
Tapping into these memories, James sometimes got emotional. "In the writing process, certainly there's some tough times," she said, "If you get emotional and then you know you're hitting on something that's truthful, and that's the most important thing in writing."
Making the film was less emotionally taxing than the scripting had been, James explained, because "there's so much that's vying for your attention and there's so much going on, that that isn't as forefront." Then she added, "I will say that there was one scene in the film when Edna's burying her photo album. I think I cried three times during the shooting of that scene. So yeah, it certainly hits you at certain points, and certainly in the edit as well. When you're just trying to feel it in the watching of it."
James hopes the emotional journey within Relic will prove cathartic for those who've also gone through the pain of losing a loved one to dementia. "You talk about this kind of stuff because it's important, and yeah, it's painful because it matters."
As for what's up next for James, more, more, and more horror. She's got a few scripts in the works, including one about a demon and one that's of the body horror subgenre. "But the one that's furthest along is a folk horror that's set in Japan," James teased. "It's kind of in the vein of The Wicker Man or Rosemary's Baby. It follows a woman who's got this intense fear of motherhood, both in the physical sense and the identity, who marries into the family who worships a fertility goddess."
This sounds similar to another scary short of hers, Drum Wave. James confirmed, "Drum Wave is the proof of concept for it."
If you want a taste of what scares and heartache James plans to bring to theaters next, check out Drum Wave.
Relic is available in select theaters, drive-ins, and on digital/VOD today.