M.L. Miller here and welcome to my tenth anniversary Best in Horror Countdown! Every day in this glorious month of October I’ll be counting down the best in horror, culminating with the best horror film since last Halloween! With theaters closed for the bulk of this shitty, shitty year, much of the countdown comes from alternative sources like streaming services, digital download, and On Demand. Plus, we saw the return of the drive-in theater, which is awesome! This list compiles the best horror films released beginning on October 1, 2019 and ending on September 30, 2020. No elitism here—only films released to the public on this list which rules out haughty festival flicks that only esteemed reviewers get to see. If it played on a public screen this year, it’s fair game to be on the list. Here we go!
Released on July 10, 2020. Available on digital download and On Demand from IFC Midnight!!
Directed by Natalie Erika James
Written by Natalie Erika James, Christian White
Starring Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Jeremy Stanford, Chris Bunton, Christina O’Neill, Catherine Glavicic, Steve Rodgers
Much has been said about elevated horror. Most of the time that means the themes are dire and wallowing in sadness. Most of the time you walk away from those films depressed and not with the thrill one has walking out of a BlumHouse jump scarer. But while Avi Arad, Robert Eggars and the pairing of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz think that in order to feel something, the audience must endure that feeling for an extremely long amount of time, Natalie Erika James is able to achieve the same levels of emotional intensity in a tight hour and a half, never lingering fetishistically on scenes to blatantly drive the point home. I like to label films like HEREDITARY, THE LODGE, THE LIGHTHOUSE, MIDSOMMAR and the like as “sorrow porn” where it is almost as if the director is gleefully putting the actors and the viewer through the same type of sadism that those who made the “torture porn” trend so mainstream in the oughts. And while, RELIC deals with similar subject matter and is emotionally heavy in its own right, it never lingers or wallows or makes these tragic wounds fester like those other films do. It’s a tight, suspenseful film about tragedy and loss, framed with quite a few effective horror trappings. And personally, I think RELIC is a much more accomplished film than the rest because of those factors.
Emily Mortimer plays Kay, a single mother who lives a busy lifestyle. A lifestyle so busy that week’s go by and she has not had contact with her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin). When a neighbor calls Kay and says he hasn’t seen or heard from Edna in about a week, she gathers up her adult daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) and heads out to her mother’s home in the country. When she arrives, Kay finds little post it notes reminding Edna to do day to day things scattered about and the home left as if Edna has simply vanished. After a few days of looking in the forest for Edna, Kay finds her standing in the kitchen and acting as if nothing had happened. Though Kay and Sam inquire, Edna will not say anything about where she was, where her mysterious bruises are from, and what is going on. Fearful that her mother may not be able to take care of herself anymore, Kay begins looking into nursing homes, while Sam thinks it might be better if she moves in with Edna to help her. Meanwhile, signs are pointing to there being something very wrong with the house they are all living in, with mysterious shadow forms moving about and odd movement sounding just behind the walls. But is all of this something paranormal or just a part of Edna’s mind giving way to dementia.
RELIC deals with subject matter that has been well dissected in recent horror films from HEREDITARY to THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN, focusing on a loved one who is literally degenerating mentally and physically before our eyes. The subject of old age is one that often hits me hard as I witnessed relatively deteriorate rather quickly quite a few times in the past and have an aged mother living on her own who one day may not be able to do so. I have a feeling director/co-writer Natalie Erika James may have witnessed tragic events such as this as well. This is a film that overflows with heartache, regret, grief, and tragedy and does so in a morbidly beautiful and tragically poetic way that only one who has endured such sorrow would understand.
Awards aren’t given to films like this, but all three of the leading ladies of RELIC are excellent in their roles. James’ characters are lived in, complex, faulted, and all too human. Nevin’s Edna gives a physically and emotionally demanding performance that challenges both Kay and Sam. Mortimer’s Kay is a divorcee, struggling with work and seems like she cannot take the burden of her mother’s care at this time in her life. Heathcote’s Sam is aimless, working in a bar and clueless as to where life will take her. When these two characters are met with the challenge of deciding what is best to do with Edna in the state she is in, they have vastly different reactions. But as tensions begin to shift and morph concerning Edna’s condition, Kay and Sam’s positions shift in a very real and understandable way. This makes the film, despite the paranormal on-goings, very believable to watch unfold. And this believability makes it all the easier to suck in the viewer and hold their attention and investment in a choke hold.
While RELIC is very much a story about very real tragedy, it beautifully incorporates strong elements of horror from the very beginning. The house Edna lives in is very much alive, shifting and changing its structure to match whose story is going on. There are moments where Sam or Kay are wandering around the house and the twists and turns seem endless. As Edna’s mind decays, Kay and Sam experience all of the horror, discomfort, and disorientation one might feel during dementia through their witness to shadow figures, odd noises, and maze-like corridors that are uncovered as they explore the home. Just as Edna is experiencing dementia, through Kay and Sam, we experience a form of dementia ourselves. All of this plays out in a beautiful, yet morbid and twisted climax that must be seen to be believed as metaphor becomes reality and the truth is understood by our entire cast.
It’s one thing to throw out emotions and recklessly heap them on top of one another in an almost joyous fashion and wear a viewer down for an extended amount of time. It’s another thing entirely to make a complex story about emotion, yet also make it interesting, to the point, and powerful in a much more truncated amount of time. One simply wears you down, while the other (RELIC) entertains and takes you on a journey dealing with the same kind of themes without making you want to check into a clinic afterwards. RELIC is a masterfully realized story filled with rich themes and intense emotions. There is an effective amount of horror, including a very grueling effects scene towards the end that will make even the hardest horror fan’s skin crawl. It is a film that puts the viewer though a metaphorical obstacle course full of emotions, horrific realizations, and heavy consequence in order to have the viewer experience what one of the characters is going through. The final scene in RELIC is horrifying and fills and deflates the heart all at once. Simply magnificent. This is Natalie Erika James’ first feature and it is proof that I will look out for anything this filmmaker has to offer from here on out. RELIC is not popcorn horror. It’s deeply disturbing and soulfully resonant from beginning to end and I guarantee this is a film you won’t be able to shake after viewing.
THE 2019-2020 COUNTDOWN!
#2 – RELIC
#3 – WHY DON’T YOU JUST DIE!
#4 – COME TO DADDY
#5 – IN FABRIC
#6 – THE HUNT
#7 – THE LODGE
#8 – TRAIN TO BUSAN PRESENTS PENINSULA
#9 – THE INVISIBLE MAN 2020
#10 – HOST
#11 – HARPOON
#12 – GRETEL & HANSEL
#13 – THE HAUNTED
#14 – DOCTOR SLEEP
#15 – DANIEL ISN’T REAL
#16 – THE VAST OF NIGHT
#17 – HOMEWRECKER
#18 – IMPETIGORE
#19 – BUTT BOY
#20 – BECKY
#21 – UNDERWATER
#22 – THE DEAD CENTER
#23 – BLOOD MACHINES
#24 – ALONE
#25 – THE BEACH HOUSE
#26 – AMULET
#27 – LAKE OF DEATH
#28 – SEA FEVER
#29 – THE RENTAL
#30 – ANTRUM: THE DEADLIEST FILM EVER MADE
#31 – REPLACE
M. L. Miller is a wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of MLMILLERWRITES.COM. Follow @Mark_L_Miller.
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Yet another surprise on a surprising list! I was sure this would be #1.. Now I’m racking my brain trying to remember what other movie you might’ve liked more during the past year.
I agree that Relic was terrific. People rightfully gave The Taking of Deborah Logan a lot of credit for using demonic possession as a metaphor for dementia, but man, Relic took that to another level completely. From being trapped inside the walls of one’s mind, to the fear of seeing a loved one as some unrecognizable “other,” to the final acceptance of their frailty and weakness, Relic really left me thinking about it long after it ended.
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Has to be Colour out of space at #1?