Watching your loved ones fall apart on the road to their passing is a very specific kind of horror. Where they once brimmed with life, they now unravel, and the person you knew becomes someone else, nigh unrecognizable from your memories of them. That’s the motivating factor of Natalie Erika James’ Relic, an existential crisis about Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), moving in with Kay’s mom, Edna (Robyn Nevin), who suffers from a form of dementia (and may be possessed by a malevolent spirit of one make and model or another).
Paste spoke with James on the power horror has to convey real-life experiences and the practical measures taken to bring the film’s indelible final scene to life.
(Spoiler warning: This discussion involves a fair amount of them.)
Relic feels like a movie that’s actually about sorrow. How did that emotion shape your approach to shooting the movie?
Natalie Erika James: That’s an interesting question. It just happened naturally. It was at the forefront of my mind of why I was telling that story; it really was about exploring the horrors of aging and Alzheimer’s, but also the grief and the sorrow behind it. You’re essentially dredging up your own trauma and emotional stuff to write the script in the first place, so maybe it’s just imbued in that writing process and carries on into the filmmaking. I also feel like the ending is so important. It’s full of heartbreak, but it’s quite an optimistic ending, and there is a sense of acceptance around it and a real beauty even though it’s very much about the end of someone’s life and the inevitability of that decline.
Paste: I’m glad you touched on the ending. That final image of Edna, and Kay, and—well, Edna monster.
James: The Other!
Paste: Other Edna is quite stunning. At the same time, it’s an image of what we might call a monster. Was there ever a moment when you thought, “We can go with the traditional ending to this movie, the expected ending”?
James: In our first pass of the script, the Other was outside of Edna. It was more like a doppelgänger presence in the house. It was quite bleak. But we decided to combine those two things and make it within her because that was true to real life, right? It is the same person essentially, but they are just losing parts of themselves.
Paste: Have you encountered any resistance to the ending? I’ve talked to a couple of people who were put off by the implication that someone like Edna is just a monster, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what you’re trying to say.
James: Not yet. It was so important throughout the film for the audience to be really aligned with Edna, and also that she be inscrutable for us so that you’re constantly guessing. Is it Alzheimer’s or something more sinister or supernatural? But we definitely wanted there to be a consistent empathy for her character as well, so there are moments where you’re with her and you feel her heartbreak and you feel the position that she’s in. For me, it really mimics what people are like at the end of their lives when they’re wasting away, when they’re really close to death. They can have an almost alien feeling about them because they’ve wasted away so much from who they were when they were healthy.
But I also encourage different interpretations of the material. That’s always really fascinating, what people take away from it, especially in horror, where the things that are scary to you are rooted in your own mythology, in your own upbringing, and what scares you as a kid. It’s so subjective and so personal, which is wonderful.
Paste: That’s one of the reasons why I love horror so much. And one of the things that actually jumped out to me about Relic is that it’s simply about acceptance, and less about destroying the evil than learning how to live with it.
James: Someone once described the traditional view of horror to me as being, like, the forces of evil are winning. That is a very black-and-white way to look at the world because morality can be so subjective. Even the villains have their motivations, right? So horror films that have that sense of gray area are just more fascinating to me personally.
Paste: Talk about other ways to the interpret the movie. I know you can’t speak for all horror filmmakers, but does that multisided view make movies more powerful than just “the forces of evil are winning”?
James: To me it does, because it’s about talking about things in your life that are real and the horrifying things that scare you. Horror is amazing because its drama allows you to physicalize those fears and externalize them. It’s also extremely emotional—by its nature it invokes fear. There are all sorts of things you can do to play with that. In some ways, I feel like it’s a safe space to feel your emotions strongly. In a drama, people don’t go running around the house screaming. In real life, even if you’re scared of something, of your parents dying or your parents aging, there’s something driving that that’s external. It’s almost somehow understandable, even if you’re talking about the same underlying theme. That’s what really appeals to me about horror. I love considering audience expectation and either embracing or subverting the trope that you expect. It’s a really powerful medium.
Paste: I like that you describe horror as a safe space. At the end of the film, with every layer of skin that Kay takes off, I thought to myself, “Something terrible is gonna happen.” There’s so much tension, but it leads to something that’s oddly peaceful. You get this really tender payoff. So how did that scene work between the actors? Their characters are doing something that’s really undeniably horrible, the actual peeling, but they’re doing it in service to something that’s compassionate.
James: It’s an intimate, compassionate act like a funeral rite, where you handle the deceased’s body or you wash them before the funeral. That was really what we were trying to do, and that was how we played it. There’s a sense of revealing someone’s true form, how they are in that moment or in that ending, and the unconditional love or acceptance of that. To still be there, even if they’re not in their ideal form or the way that you grew up with them—in essence, it’s not the person that you were used to loving, but you have to continue loving them. That was the intention.
Paste: How did you pull off the practical components of those visuals?
James: The logistics! So fun. I love prosthetics. We made an animatronic puppet, which was incredible. I was blown away by how much detail they could capture in the mechanics of that animatronic. It turns out the eyeballs aren’t so important so much as the muscles around the face. That’s what really gives someone the quality of being animated. The prosthetics team worked really closely with the animatronics guys, and honestly, when I saw it I burst into tears because I knew that no matter how successful the rest of the film was, if this moment didn’t land, it would just be a shit show. (laughs) And it’s all about restraint as well. It’s all about not showing too much, so it’s the suggestion of the effects and then being strategic with that is really important. I would say it was 70% practical and 30% visual.
Paste: Thanks so much for the insight and for your time.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.