Relic

INTERVIEW: Natalie Erika James and the Women of ‘Relic’ (2020)

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Relic is one of those slow-burn horror films that slips under your skin and makes it crawl so subtly that you don’t even notice it’s happening at first.

Written and directed by Natalie Erika James, the film stars Robyn Nevin (The Matrix Revolutions), Emily Mortimer (The Newsroom), and Bella Heathcote (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as three generations of women affected by the family matriarch’s mental deterioration as she slips into dementia. The film is both heartbreaking and terrifying as their environment takes on a reflection of that breakdown.

iHorror had the amazing opportunity to sit down with all four of these women for a special roundtable interview yesterday, and they did not disappoint as they took us behind the scenes of the film and talked about what it meant to them to bring this particular story to life.

Author’s Note: Things below this line get a bit spoiler-y. It’s almost impossible to discuss this film and its themes without doing so. You have been warned.

“You know, fear is really a physical kind of reaction as well as emotional,” James began. “To be able to externalize fear and talk about interesting themes but still kind of through an engaging ride is probably the strength of horror and why people connect with it. Bella and I have talked about how it’s kind of safe space to feel emotions really strongly. There’s an end to a horror movie. It’s the closest you can get to death without dying. Being scared out of your wits, feeling that fight or flight. Not dissimilar to a roller coaster ride.”

“Knowing that it’s a fiction, it’s an entertainment,” Nevin, who plays grandmother Edna in the film and who admits she’s not one to watch scary movies, agreed. “There’s a beginning and there’s an end and you’ll all go out and there will be cups of tea or brandies or…whiskeys, Emily, afterward. So I completely understand how it works in that way. The sense of being terrified but knowing that you’re safe to be terrified.”

“There have been wonderful dramas about Alzheimer’s and death and things,” Mortimer added. “The horror genre can kind of mitigate the intensity of the subject matter in a way that makes it more bearable but it doesn’t dilute the intensity of the feelings. It’s so cool. You can have your cake and eat it. You can have this movie that’s playing in drive-in theaters across America and people are going to get scared and thrilled but at the same time it’s a story about something really profound. It’s so cool.”

In a way, that’s why all of these amazing actresses were drawn to their roles in the film. James had created an incredible story wrapped in terror that grew from a real place as she had dealt with her own grandmother’s extended battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Edna (Robyn Nevin), Kay (Emily Mortimer), and Sam (Bella Heathcote) as three generations of women put to the test in Relic from Natalie Erika James.

For Heathcote, however, it was also the honesty in the relationships between grandmother, mother, and daughter that fed her desire to join the film.

“I loved that each of the three women had a kind of equal standing and each of the characters had something to offer and they were really well written and they had complicated relationships,” she explained. “They were messy. I just loved the contrast between all the relationships. I thought it was really kind of incredible to kind of trust the audience that you can still like a female character even if she’s complicated or if she doesn’t get along with her mother.”

Those relationships resonated with the younger actress who spoke of experiencing her mother’s death, as well. The emotional toll on a child who realizes their parent no longer recognizes them was heartbreaking to say the least, and one that was echoed by Mortimer, as well.

“I had a similar experience as well when my dad died,” Mortimer said. “Having that experience of that person who’s never not looked at you with love and adoration suddenly looking at you like they don’t know who the hell you are. That’s scarier than anything you’ve ever seen in a horror film. That’s really the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced actually. The fact that Natalie kind of managed to bottle that feeling and depict it in a really thrilling and entertaining and wild horror movie is a huge achievement.”

“It was different for me because I was actually the one who was going through this sad process and I haven’t obviously,” Nevin added. “My experience with my relationships with my mother and my daughter were of particular significance to me and they were useful in that they were just in me. They’re just part of who I am and what I actually use as an actress. I have always, always used my own personal inner well of memory and emotion.”

The challenges of Relic were not only emotional, however. Each of the women involved in the film had their own hill to climb as they prepared for the roles they would take.

Natalie Erika James on the set of Relic

For James, that meant stepping in to helm her first feature film. Overseeing each step of the process was daunting, but one she took one step at a time.

For example, in one particular portion of the film, Heathcote’s character, Sam, becomes trapped in a labyrinthine, otherworldly portion of the house. James and her production designer had designed an incredible set piece for the film, only to discover that they were over budget by almost 40 percent.

“So here’s me taking a red pen to our designs,” the director said laughing, “trying to figure out how to hit all the beats but within a much smaller space than we’d originally anticipated.”

That labyrinth sequence proved particularly difficult for Heathcote.

“We shot it toward the end of the shoot and it was the first time I felt like I was really in it alone,” she said. “Up until that point I think I was spoiled with having Emily and Robyn with me and just feeling really held and suddenly I was in it by myself. Running around kind of unraveling. By the last day, I was definitely feeling a bit frag.”

Even with supernatural forces, mysterious labyrinths behind walls, and transformations which put Nevin in prosthetics which she laughing referred to as “unspeakably uncomfortable and miserable,” the horror of Relic is still rooted in the very real experience of those going through Alzheimer’s as well as those who are in the position of caregiving for them.

It’s a challenge that I have witnessed multiple times in my own family and because of this there was one moment in particular that stood out to me.

At the end of the film, as quiet settles over the house once more, Sam notices a spot on her mother’s back, a metaphysical blemish just like the one her grandmother manifested as the dementia took over. It’s a gut punch of a moment for anyone who has seen their family’s touched by dementia. That fear…the one that says this could happen to someone else you love…it could be passed down to you.

When I asked James to talk about it, I saw that same sort of discomfort I feel, myself when I consider it.

“Any time you are forced to confront your grandparents’ mortality, it inevitably makes you think about your parents’ mortality and by extension your own,” she said. “It’s kind of terrifying on multiple levelss. For myself, it was my mother’s mother who had Alzheimer’s and my mom is in her 60s and very healthy but you also have those moments of forgetfulness that start to emerge as well. It’s terrifying. She walks like two or three hours a day as well and that specifically fed into the script. The potential for her to go wandering later in life. It just kind of terrifies me, and I think that’s it. I wanted to leave the film on a note about the cyclical nature of it. It doesn’t stop with just one generation.”

The moment played out beautiful as one of the most unsettling int he film. It is definitely one that I won’t soon forget.

Relic is out today to rent on streaming platforms and On Demand. Take a look at the trailer below, and don’t miss this incredible film.

Waylon Jordan is a lifelong fan of genre fiction and film especially those with a supernatural element. He firmly believes that horror reflects collective fears of society and can be used as a tool for social change.