Is there anything the horror genre loves more than a dysfunctional family? Directors are constantly searching for opportunities to explore omnipresent power dynamics and tease at taboos — two things that the poor families who find themselves in our thrillers have in spades.

That being said, it’s always refreshing to see a new perspective on this age-old subgenre. Australian director Natalie Erika James attempts to bring something fresh to the table, and at least partially succeeds — with some obvious influences cited along the way.

The story centers around Kay (Emily Mortimer) as she is forced to deal with the recent disappearance of her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) and her strained relationship with her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote). James is particularly adept at inspiring an unceasing sense of dread, but this is very much a double-edged skill: the high level of tension maintained throughout the film is undoubtedly impressive, but it leads to some faux-scares ending in an undeniable feeling of bathos.

Performances are laudable all-around, with Heathcote perhaps taking the cake by effectively showcasing how the uncertainty of youth can make it difficult to properly connect with older generations. Relic is a real slow-burner, taking quite a while to reveal anything substantive at all, and leaving plenty of things unrevealed all the way up until its conclusion.

Both Darren Aronofsky’s divisive effort mother! and Ari Aster‘s borderline-modern-classic Hereditary serve as extremely obvious influences in everything from themes to set design to visual palette. As derivative as it can be, I would be remiss to call the film uninspired: James is using a well-established framework to make some powerful, if elusive, statements on how inherited abuse and emotional struggles through generations. This point is made quite subtly until the film’s finale, where it is unfortunately spelled out for the audience through a far-too obvious but admittedly arresting visual sequence.

Relic, if nothing else, joins the category of horror films that prove the genre can make powerful artistic statements without betraying its core tenets. James may not be breaking new ground, but she’s created a film with a remarkable sense of clarity and purpose — an exciting indication of what may be to come for her.

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