Last night, I visited an indoor movie theater for the first time since early March. I didn’t exactly have options: The only non-drive-in cinema in South Florida that jumped through the regulatory hoops required to reopen in Phase 2 was the intrepid Paradigm Cinemas, a five-screen in Tamarac (Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale and Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood opened briefly, but closed a few weeks later). I made the schlep down because, A) as a movie critic and cinephile, I have missed the theatrical experience dearly; and B) I wanted to see how the experience differed from the pre-pandemic norm.
To the latter, not much appeared to have changed, outside of blue tape on the floors to enforce social distancing. And the place was staffed by a particularly skeletal crew. Only the general manager appeared on duty, working the front and back of the house, taking admissions, serving concessions.
The eerie quiet of this once-bustling theater—seniors, long its target demographic, have been especially, and understandably, cautious about returning to pre-COVID habits—seemed befitting for the movie we selected, “Relic.” This intelligent Aussie chiller has been having a moment since opening in early July. The independent release from IFC Films would not have made much of a box-office splash in a normal blockbuster-soaked summer, but with most Hollywood product delayed, it grossed more money than any other title during its first week of opening.
An aching story of familial guilt and disconnection wrapped in the commercial cloak of a haunted-house horror flick, “Relic” stars Emily Mortimer, in some of her best work, as Kay, who is summoned to her enormous childhood home after learning that its lone inhabitant, her mentally ailing octogenarian mother Edna (Robyn Nevin), has been missing for days. Kay and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) scour the creaky Dickensian manse to no avail, and are initially only mildly disturbed by the unexplained phenomena in the house: the sounds inside the walls, like rolling billiard balls; the black mold that appears out of nowhere, and seems to slowly spread.
Things don’t improve much when Edna miraculously appears in the kitchen, covered in dirt and with a moldy splotch on her chest, brewing tea as if nothing happened. The terror snowballs with an admirable deliberation. The film’s debut co-writer and director, Natalie Erika James, superbly conveys the sensation of a sentient home; in key sequences, her camera fades in and out like the voyeuristic inhalations and exhalations of an invisible entity existing in the firmament.
But nothing in “Relic,” not even the squeamishly frightening turns of its third act, is as impactful as its subtext, which deals with the callous way society treats its elders. Kay is no villain when she tours an assisted-living facility in Melbourne, walking past its hollow-eyes zombie tenants, believing with demonstrable justification that her mother can no longer support herself on her own. It’s simply what we do—use our money to delegate the responsibilities of care to others. Edna, after all, is an afflicted person, and as someone who has dealt with elderly dementia sufferers, the movie’s depiction of her bouts of rage, confusion and misplaced paranoia is spot-on. But she is also, clearly, encountering paranormal activity that only she can properly identify.
In the unreliable narrator of Edna, James expertly blurs the distinction between a demented mind and a victim of demonic forces, but Kay can only see the former. When Edna succumbs to a full-throated possession, Kay utters the line many exhausted daughters have vocalized about Alzheimer’s-impaired parents: “It’s not her anymore.” “Relic” is a film that confronts our impatience, and our shortage of compassion, for our loved ones at their most challenging.
“Relic” is, like all recent releases, available for purchase at home. I, however, was thrilled to see it the old-fashioned way, with surround-sound speakers and crisp projection on a jumbo screen. But if Thursday’s turnout in Tamarac was any indication, I’m in the minority: Only one other couple attended this screening.
On the one hand, there was some comfort in knowing the visit was so safe: Social distancing is not an issue when we’re the only ones in an auditorium. As for the theater’s long-term sustainability of paying for digital prints, keeping food stocked and keeping the lights on for audiences that can be counted on fewer than two hands? From an economic standpoint, that’s a story as grim as the one told in “Relic.”
“Relic” continues this weekend at Paradigm Cinemas, 10036 W. McNab Road, Tamarac. It can also be rented on Amazon Prime, iTunes, VUDU and Google Play.