— depictions of domesticity that, as they unroll, uncover
something ugly. Swallow follows Hunter (a striking Haley Bennett), a young housewife married to Richie (Austin Stowell). As it was with Safe, what the couple has seems, at first glance, picturesque — an old-fashioned ideal.
Hunter and Richie live in a secluded mansion with a view in upstate New York; it’s dressed to the nines in sleek furniture and technologies. Seen here is the kind of exorbitant wealth that welcomes a minimalist style — they want you to know that they paid more to have this chic less. Richie is a classically handsome, über-successful businessman about to take over his father’s position as CEO of an unnamed corporation. Hunter, who was working rather unsuccessfully as an illustrator before she married Richie in a whirlwind, has a vague resemblance to Marilyn Monroe and is expecting a baby.
Just as in its spiritual forebearers, there is deep disaffection at the root of all this. Hunter is lonesome and lost; she doesn’t seem to have any friends, and when she is around her new family members, they talk over her, and, without fail, will find a new way to insinuate that her interest in Richie has purely to do with his wealth. There isn’t much of a spark between Hunter and Richie. Was there ever? In one of the film’s first scenes, they sit down for dinner and Richie unceremoniously tells his wife, who’s been by herself all day, milling about in her head, that he’d prefer to just look at his phone over talking.
Ostensibly powered by her increasing misery, Hunter soon
develops pica, a psychological disorder that results in its sufferer being struck with an uncontrollable urge to down inedible objects. It begins for Hunter when, after reading a self-help book gifted to her by her mother-in-law (Elizabeth Marvel) that recommends she do something “unexpected” every day, she swallows a marble. She luxuriates in the feeling of control it gives her. The impulse to do the same thing, but with a trinket more “dangerous,” gets harder to ignore. In the course of Swallow, Hunter will eat thumbtacks, batteries, whole pages from that self-help book. She places the nicest-looking items she’s digested on a shiny silver platter in front of her vanity — you can guess what the cleaning process preceding that looks like — and looks at them with admiration whenever they meet her gaze. We soon learn that Hunter’s malaise goes beyond simply being gravely dissatisfied in the day to day.
As is the case with Relic, horror orthodoxies aren't what
affect us most in Swallow. Our agitation stems from our empathy, and how the films’ respective directors dramatize
and dress up the troubles of their characters. Both movies are sufficiently claustrophobic. James preferred a muted color palette and a sepulchral main setting as the primary tools to visually develop that claustrophobia. But Mirabella-Davis, a lot like Todd Haynes with Safe, emphasizes how small Hunter feels in the big, luxe spaces with which she has become familiar as Richie’s trophy wife. During the earlier sections of the movie, Mirabella-Davis prefers to shoot his heroine in medium and long shots to accent her smallness.
Hunter feels so consumed by this upper-class world; the feature suggests that her newfound compulsion to consume the inconsumable is her way of subverting how she consistently feels consumed — in some cases swallowed whole. It’s a little on the nose, and I do find the use of pica, which is something people do suffer from, as a horror-movie-style ailment a little vexing. Still, Swallow is an efficiently unnerving, well-acted study of a woman toxically trying to find some sort of catharsis for her long-building uneasiness.
wallow (2020), another directorial debut (it’s the first feature-length from Carlo Mirabella-Davis), is a horror movie made in the tradition of Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives (1975), and Safe (1995)
mold-ridden and cavernous home in which most of Relic is set is indeed overcome with moody spirits that go bump in the night. And it’s unclear to us whether Edna does indeed have dementia (though it’s very strongly implied) or if she was actually of a sound mind until those unconfirmed spirits in her house started toying with it. What if we are seeing the arrival of a passed-down family curse rather than outright dementia? Perhaps Edna is being affected by all three. Or perhaps, more ambitiously, none of what we're seeing in
Relic is really happening, and the not-quite-right house is an allegorical extension of Edna’s progressing unfamiliarity to those who knew her best before her decline. During one sequence, Sam finds herself in a secret passageway that devolves into a sort of labyrinth that tapers off once she makes it to a crawlspace-sized hallway. This isn’t the house she remembers spending so much time in as she came of age.
Initially the indirectness of Relic is frustrating. If the movie isn’t going to attach the nerve endings of its ideas to orthodox horror conventions, why not just make this a grim drama? But the various ambiguities started to click for me as I neared the finale. Relic would undoubtedly make for a satisfyingly escapist horror movie if it would just come out and say that there are spirits in the house, that there is a family curse, and/or that that family curse is in part exacerbated by those spirits. But the film’s co-writer and first-time director, Natalie Erika James, smartly harnesses the power of uncertainty. If you’re going to venture to make a horror movie that is partially capitalizing on the anxieties surrounding a disease like dementia, what makes more sense than making a film just as difficult to fully understand and contend with?
When you watch someone you love grapple with the disease, you feel an admixture of deep sadness and terror: the deep sadness mostly rooted in the understanding that the person you once knew isn’t exactly “there” the way they used to be; the terror mostly rooted in speculation, and how the disease might affect its sufferer on a given day. (My great-grandma, who lived to be 91, dealt with it during the later years of her life; even in her confusion, her almost-comical, famous-to-those-who-knew-her sweetness never wavered.) Of course, being a horror movie, Relic takes these feelings and what can cause them to extremes. Edna, at various points, will self-mutilate in front of her family members. And whatever her precise condition is, we can track its escalation through a mysterious, ever-growing bruise in her chest that spreads more and more by the hour, like black ink absorbing a glass of water’s clearness.
The film is shot so mutedly that even color looks like black and white. It's so claustrophobic that I wanted to get out of it, as if it were something physical, like a box. Its characters in no doubt feel the same way — but this box is pretty tightly sealed. You can leave Edna’s capacious, crumbling house, but you then have miles of countryside to plow through. You can head home, but it’s not like you now suddenly don’t have a loved one’s well-being resting in your hands.
It’s never the shedding of blood, the audible cracking of bones, the threat of a jump scare that gets to us most in Relic. The trivia of horror-movie conventions is most amplified in one scene where Edna commands her daughter to look under the bed; it’s almost a joke. Scariest in the movie are not the things we see in horror features in abundance but more so the very prospect of the disease existing at its center. How will it impact the person it is ravaging, and how will this affect their family members? Those who haven't seen the disease's effects firsthand will likely watch the movie more in a state of unease and worry than horror-movie fear. This isn't an anxiety confined to fiction, even if the seemingly supernatural histrionics surrounding Edna's descent are. And those who have seen/are currently seeing dementia’s effects firsthand will likely recognize themselves in Kay and Edna, both played with astounding emotional vividness by Mortimer and Heathcote. You can see it in their faces — the toll it’s taking on them both to see their matriarch transform into someone they cannot recognize on account of something they are powerless to control.
The screenplay, penned by James and Christian, hits the right notes in how the women contend with Edna’s decline. Kay wants to send her to a retirement home, whereas Sam initially offers to move in with her grandma (she recently quit her job impulsively) and act as her caretaker. We catch glimpses of Kay alone, internally wrestling with what she wants to do. She thinks her decision is best, but it still stings when Sam takes an issue with her not wanting to proffer up the plenty of space she supposedly has in her home. We see doubt cast a shadow on Sam as she slowly realizes that her moving in with Edna is not the be-all and end-all solution she thinks it could be. Kay and Sam were already having some problems before Edna’s self-sufficiency went into limbo; Relic acutely, persuasively, shows us the wounds that can resultantly form when this unexpected development announces itself. Horror-movie dread comes and goes. The dread of Relic strikes us differently. We wish we could forget it.
Emily Mortimer in 2020's Relic.
haunted-house film mixed with the sort of horror feature that stretches out the fears which come with an everyday “issue.” (In this case, it’s parental aging and dementia, made scary the same way pregnancy was in 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby.) It’s about a mother and daughter pair, Kay and Sam (Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote), who travel together to the countryside home of the family’s 80-something-year-old matriarch, Edna (Robyn Nevin), after she is reported missing. When she returns a few days later, Edna seems quieter, more inward than usual — more forgetful, too. Horrific things soon start happening — most of those things being increasingly bizarre (which is to also say violent) behavior from Edna and also, it seems, from the house.
But it’s never confirmed, really, whether the
ark and dour, Relic (2020) is a horror movie that never quite goes where you think it will. At first it seems like it’s going to be a fairly straightforward
On Relic and Swallow, two horror releases you might have missed this year