Dec 4, 2020


Toward the end of her life, my grandmother developed dementia after having suffered a then-undetected series of  mini-strokes while living alone in her Philly row home of many decades. She was someone I’d always known to be fierce, strong, and stubborn (I come from an Italian family, so no surprise there); she was also someone for whom the expression “suffered no fools” was coined. Her bullshit detector was well-oiled and frequently maintained, and though she treated her grandchildren with great care, if you were anyone else – look out. Because of this, she loomed large in my childhood mind and I always took for granted that she’d remain a towering, untoppable figure until her end…but after silently growing old in the home where she raised my father and uncle, a home which she refused to abandon in that stubborn elderly-person way, she was finally carried out against her will – literally, as she sat in an armchair, like she was an Egyptian queen – after suffering a fall caused by her stroke. In spite of her profane promises, she’d never see her home of sixty-plus years again. Like many other poor souls, she lived out her final days in an assisted living facility, where she wasted away into a crooked mass of bones and thinning white hair until she no longer resembled who she was.

The last two times I saw her offered two polar extremes on what dementia can do to a person; it was my first time witnessing how someone can be abandoned by their own retreating mind and realizing how little in control we are of our own ends.

Being that my father maintained routine visits, her memory and knowledge of him was always fresh and available. But me…she didn’t know. Not at first.

“You remember Joey?” he asked her, motioning to me after we entered her room during my first visit.

From her oversized bed where she looked like a shrunken doll, she nodded at me politely but indifferently and said, “Hi, Jerry.”

My father, by now well used to her fleeting mind, softly laughed and said, “Not Jerry, Mom. Joey…your grandson.”

She looked at me again, confused and wary, like a trick was being played on her…but then her recognition of me kicked in and every corner of her face changed. She softened. A smile of remembrance and love replaced her tight-lipped expression of forced civility. Within a few seconds, she looked and felt like an entirely different person – the person I’d known since I was old enough to know anyone at all.

“Hi, Joey,” she said in a quivering voice, her smile growing wider, and the miseries of her life and her new depressing environment were entirely gone. I sat down next to her bed, took her hand, and we talked. The specifics of what we talked about have faded since that day, but I seem to recall her saying she was looking forward to getting out of that place and going back home, just as soon as she was better.

As awful as her eventual ending was, I wish this had been our last time meeting.

I went to see her again later on, but this time by myself. My father had warned me ahead of time that, without him next to me, she might not know who I was. I understood this, but reasoned I had to try; she obviously didn’t have much time left, and if the choice was to either see her or not see her, it didn’t seem like much of a choice at all.

She wasn’t in her room this time; she was sitting alone in her wheelchair in the common area. I sat down next to her, but she didn’t acknowledge me. Finally, I said, “Hi, Grandmom.”

She looked at me with cool, dismissive eyes.

“…What?” she responded, like I was some random solicitor at her door pretending to know her while selling her something she couldn’t have needed less. It was evident she didn’t know who I was, and after looking at me for a second, she looked straight ahead again.

“It’s Joey,” I told her. “Your grandson.”

“My what?” she asked harshly. “What are you talking about? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I tried every association I could think of. My father – I was his son. My uncle – I was his nephew. I said their names over and over, and though she remembered them, her memory of me had been lost. It was a situation I didn’t know how to navigate, and even though I knew this was a possibility, I didn’t come prepared for the event it actually happened. The more I tried to engage her, the more I realized she suspected I was facility personnel, and once that idea settled into her mind, instead of my being some random stranger, her demeanor warmed a bit, so I remained with her and talked in general terms for a few more minutes. I asked if the staff were treating her nicely, and if she was comfortable, to which she offered noncommittal responses. I soon ran out of things to say, so we sat in silence for a bit before I stood up to leave. The last thing I ever said to her was, “I’ll come back to see you again real soon, okay?”

She shrugged at me, like this were no big thing, because why should she care if some anonymous staff member whom she didn’t know ever saw her again? “Okay…” she muttered, as if I were offering her irrelevant information she’d never need to know, as if she were telling me, “You can go now, whoever you are.”

I nearly ran out of the place – like I’d done something wrong and an orderly would be chasing me down any moment. I left feeling like an emotional catastrophe. I felt terrible for her because this was going to be how she ended. I felt irrationally embarrassed and hurt because she didn’t know who I was. And I felt afraid because I couldn’t help but wonder if this miserable fate would eventually befall my own parents, and all the people I ever loved, and then me. She passed away not much longer after that, and I realized with sadness and shame that my last ever interaction with her involved me pretending to be someone else just so she would talk to me.

John Carpenter once said that fear is the most universal emotion we have – that we’re born afraid, we die afraid, and in between, we’re all afraid of the same things. We can be afraid of the mythological: werewolves, vampires, and other monsters; the philosophical: ghosts and demons and the darkness inside us all; and the scientific: aliens, bad biology, species long thought extinct, and a planet rebelling against us for having treated it so poorly. As vicious or scary as any of those concepts and cryptids might be, we always have that safety net of fiction keeping us at arm’s length from terror’s implications. Sure, even the most fantastical titles can be used as parallels for real-world horror, which is what the genre does best – you can be just as afraid of George Romero’s zombies as an old spooky house as Jason Voorhees cutting your midsection off with a pole saw. Subterranean sand worms, Maryland witches, mirror-dwelling ghosts, telekinetic misfits – you have no choice but to pick your poison. But ultimately, every single horror movie ever made was about the same thing: our innate fear of death, in what form it will come, and through what avenue our lives led us to such an ending. Will our deaths be quick and peaceful, or drawn out and painful? Will the last thing we ever see be a familiar face by our bedside, or the back of the nurse as she updates our file on a hospital computer? Will we feel someone’s warm hand in ours, or nothing but cold air? Will we still know who we are when the time comes, or will our minds be trapped inside a darkened room that no longer feels familiar to us?

This year’s Relic, directed by Natalie Erika James, is perhaps one of the most terrifying films you could ever see – not because it’s the kind of horror experience that shares shocking, boundary-pushing imagery like a Hereditary or presents something more epically-scoped like a Night of the Living Dead – but because it’s one of those rare films where the real-life horror informs the cinematic one, as opposed to the opposite. Night of the Living Dead or Invasion of the Body Snatchers were blank slates – their roving mass threats could embody whatever real-life horror you wanted. Romero said Night of the Living Dead was about one culture devouring another and changing everything. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was an allegory for communism, while the 1978 remake was about the various revolutions American citizens were taking part in at that time: protesting the Vietnam War, decrying the corruption of the Nixon White House, cheering on sexual liberation – rejecting the machine that was turning everyone into soulless automatons who wouldn’t question authority. Relic isn’t front-facingly about something while secretly being about something else. It is very much about the horrors of slowly losing a loved one to dementia, and how that horror can escape the brain it’s already infected and leak out onto those forced to act as the caregiver. It can twist relationships, warp the very home in which you live, and reinvent a person you’ve known and loved for so long that they are no longer someone you recognize or understand, mutating them into something monstrous and villainous and a sobering portent of things possibly to come. And you can either fight, rebel, and flee from this monster, or embrace it, because you know, deep down, that person you’ve always known is still there, and you will never be able to change what is.

Kay (Emily Mortimer, Shutter Island) and her somewhat estranged daughter, Sammy (Bella Heathcote, Neon Demon) are heading to Kay’s mother’s isolated home in the middle of the Australian woods. Edna (Robyn Nevin, The Matrix sequels), prone to forgetfulness from an encroaching mental illness, has been missing for a few days, so Kay and Sammy examine the house, speak to authorities, and walk the woods, with no sign of her…that is until she comes home in the middle of the night while Kay and Sammy are asleep; her feet are dirty, she’s spacier than usual, and she’s not talking about where she’s been, but otherwise she seems physically fine. As time goes on, what Kay assumes to be a rapidly deteriorating mind turns out to be much more terrifying, and as a black mold begins to overtake Edna’s house, in the same way a black nothingness overtakes her mind, Kay is forced to navigate caring for a parent with dementia while also contending with the strange and potentially paranormal presence transforming the very home in which all three generations are currently living.

Considering its own trailer seems to have been heavily inspired by that of Hereditary, while also showing off familiar “Boo!” imagery from the likes of The Conjuring, you might be surprised by what Relic offers. That’s not to say Relic isn’t scary, or even a horror film – it’s both – but it moves at a purposely slow place, revealing pieces of the mystery a little at a time, or sometimes showing you potential pieces of the puzzle, leaving the viewer to put it all together. If you come looking for quick-paced, mainstream horror, Relic will fight you at every turn, but if you’re a patient viewer who enjoys a good mystery, Relic will not only prove a satisfying spin on the haunted house story, but will hit you hard in the feels with its intensely emotional finale – and it’s all due to the realistically flawed characters.

Early on, in spite of Kay’s worry, it’s easy for the viewer to see her as uncaring and unconcerned – not because of any action she fails to take, but because of her ambivalent reaction to her mother’s odd behavior. We, the audience, know from the start that something unnatural is unfolding, and Mortimer willingly and bravely takes on the role of a hands-off daughter, risking the audience’s aversion to her. In reality, Kay’s sins aren’t outlandish or unique to anyone who has ever been in that situation. She’s the first to admit she could’ve been around more, and maybe she should’ve been, but she spends the entire film contending with this and refusing the “easier” resolutions to Edna’s growing mental instability, eventually visiting a “five-star living” retirement home but later crying in the parking lot because she knows she doesn’t have the heart to follow through. During the first act, it’s revealed that Kay’s great grandfather had suffered a similar malady and died in total isolation on the family’s property, so when she says, “His mind wasn’t all there in the end…I don’t think he was cared for like he should’ve been,” that’s the crux of the film’s conflict and what has to be overcome.

The character of Sammy closely parallels the audience; because of her presumed estrangement with her mother, whom she calls by her first name, her sympathies lie with her grandmother by default, assuming her to be the victim of an impatient daughter unwilling to reconcile Edna’s wayward mind and her need for independence. In a way, Sammy represents idealistic ignorance – someone young and lacking real-world experience of how shitty life can be, someone who is burdened only with the knowledge of what’s going on, but without the full scope of its implications. During a sweet moment with her grandmother, Sammy offers to move into the house permanently to help her with every day tasks; within minutes, however, following a nasty confrontation directly caused by Edna’s illness, Sammy gets her first taste of how life would be as Edna’s caregiver. Suddenly, things don’t seem so easy.

Nevin brings Edna to life in equally horrifying and heartbreaking ways. There are very few moments where Edna is lucid and seemingly the way she used to be, though she never shares any of these moments with Kay. Their relationship is tense and worsens throughout the film, with Edna only softening during the scenes where she tries to convince Kay that someone or something is coming after her. Relic packs these emotional punches several times, offering the viewer a full view of how wrenching this kind of existence can be. Edna is consistently presented as both the villain and the victim, never comfortably resting on one side versus the other – and when dealing with something like a mental illness, this hews close to reality when relating it to an outsider’s perception. Edna’s increasingly dangerous behavior isn’t a result of anything more than bad biological luck, and the emotional toll it takes on those around her results in perhaps irrational but completely understandable fear, anger, and frustration. It’s easy for someone in Kay’s position to fear someone who was once a mother but now acts like a complete stranger, to grow angry at her for “allowing” this transformation to take place, and to grow frustrated at many, many things: her mother’s wandering mind, the brutal life cycle that enables this kind of misery, and herself for not being as present as she could’ve been. Kay is railing against life itself, and why it's filled with so much hardship and heartache, but she's also railing against her own least until she comes to accept it. We're all of us in for a very similar battle; we can refute, rebel, and reject, or we can accept it. Like the bumper sticker says, none of us get out of this life alive.

All these years later, I know who my grandmother was and I know who she wasn’t. She was the pint-sized woman who wore her golden hair in that tight and curly schoolmarm look, who took the bus everywhere she went, whose favorite store was Macy’s, who was that typical sitcom grandmother who was infamous for giving us kids the kinds of embarrassing clothes that would’ve gotten us beat up at recess had we actually worn them to school. I know that who she was at the end wasn’t a fair and accurate reflection of who she was in life. I understand that…but I haven’t made my peace with it, either. I can’t think of her without thinking of that, and that’s horrific and unkind, but necessary and perhaps unavoidable. Cinematic horror screams one thing in your ear while whispering something else behind your back, but real-life horror like Relic looks you right in the eye and shows you, directly, what fear looks like and warns you that you’ll never be free of it.

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