“We must make haste then,” Marcus Aurelius once wrote, “not only because we are daily nearer death but also because the conception of things and the understanding of them cease first.” Of course, one does not need to be a second-century Roman emperor cum Stoic philosopher to discern this poignant truth about the human experience. If our mortality is the ultimate injury, the cognitive decline that precedes it is the added insult: the gradual loss of the one trait that (allegedly) distinguishes humans as the cleverest of the apes. Perhaps even more frightening, however, is the disintegration of memories, those bricks in the edifice of identity. Without remembrances, the individual becomes a mere flickering consciousness, fumbling their way through a lonely, unfathomable world populated only by strangers and terrors.

Australian writer-director Natalie Erika James’ masterful debut feature, Relic, is a horror film about this mental disintegration, about the devil that comes for us all eventually. (Assuming one is fortunate enough to make it to the winter years in the first place.) It is an intimate, even suffocating film, a ghost story (of sorts) about three generations of women and an old, draughty house. From these humble, gothic materials, James and co-writer Christian White construct a chilling allegory about the ravages of dementia, about the dread of watching as a loved one is slowly replaced by something unfamiliar, unpredictable, and terrifying. More than anything, Relic is about the horror of entropy, our helplessness in the face of biology and time. Eventually, the rot creeps in, as insidious as dripping water and black mold. The bastard spawn of Away from Her (2006) and Hereditary (2018) – with a dusting of mutant spores from Mark Danielewski’s 2000 postmodern cult novel, House of LeavesRelic takes the everyday tribulations of countless families and infuses them with a fresh, darkling resonance.

In the film’s brief, ominous prelude, an unattended bathtub overflows in a darkened house, the water pooling on the floor, seeping under the door, and cascading down the stairs. Meanwhile, a naked elderly woman – who will eventually be identified as octogenarian widow Edna (Robyn Nevin) – stands motionless in the living room, bathed in the pulsating, multi-colored glow from the Christmas tree. Some months later, Edna’s daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer), and granddaughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), arrive at the house, after learning from the neighbors that Edna has not been sighted in a few weeks. Kay suspects the worse, but the truth is more puzzling and worrisome: Her mother is not dead but missing, as though she simply walked out the back door one morning and never came back. This is not an outlandish possibility, given that Edna has previously exhibited signs of dementia. At one point, Kay observes with a frustrated sigh that her mother has been setting out food for their long-dead dog.

Other than reporting Edna’s disappearance to the police and vainly searching the surrounding woods, Kay is uncertain about what to do, and this powerlessness unfortunately provides the space for her guilt and despondency to flourish. She and Sam take up interim residence in the house, as though maintaining a vigil for Edna’s return, and the stress of the situation only exacerbates their already-fraught mother-daughter relationship. Kay is an anxious and critical parent whose perpetual exasperation at her daughter’s lack of ambition stems in part from her distant relationship with her own mother. Sam, meanwhile, is laidback and flippant, an underemployed slacker who is in no hurry to follow the path tread by her divorced, workaholic mom. (Sam pointedly calls her mother “Kay,” emphasizing the word as if it were a slur.) In between their back-and-forth sniping, both women gradually become aware of the house’s unsettling oddities, such as the moldy patches of water damage in seemingly every room, the distant scraping and thumping that can be heard behind the walls at night, and the sliding deadbolt Edna evidently installed on the outside of a walk-in closet.

Their ordeal is over as suddenly as it began, however: One morning, Kay awakens to find Edna in the kitchen, making tea in her filthy, bloody nightgown as if nothing has happened. Edna cannot (or will not) explain where she has been, but her daughter and granddaughter are initially so relieved that she is alive and apparently unharmed, they do not press her on the matter. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that Gran has changed since her disappearance, and not for the better. Although Edna seems to have always been a tart-tongued, strong-willed woman, her behavior grows increasingly irritable and erratic in the following days. Her mood swings wildly, she repeatedly calls Sam by the wrong name, and she whispers fearfully of an invading presence in the house.

Daughter and granddaughter each start to contemplate solutions to Edna’s accelerating cognitive collapse – Kay drives to Melbourne to tour a nursing home, while Sam floats the prospect of moving in with Gran as her caretaker. There are hints, however, that forces darker than any neurological affliction have infiltrated Edna’s mind, body, and home. Kay is plagued by nightmares about her grandfather, who dwelled in a now-demolished cabin on the property and experienced a slow, mostly hidden mental unraveling of his own, culminating in a grisly end. The vintage stained-glass window from that cabin was salvaged and set into the front door of Edna’s home, as it happens. Suddenly, the window feels less like an heirloom and more like a florid tumor, the metastasizing symbol of a legacy that threatens to consume mother, daughter, and granddaughter alike.

Relic is the sort of astonishingly polished and haunting first-time feature that marks its writer-director as an immediately vital talent in the genre, a debut that can stand alongside the likes of The Babadook (2014), The Witch (2015), and Get Out (2017). Known on the festival circuit for her horror shorts (“Creswick”, “Drum Wave”), James here exhibits the thematic deftness, resourceful storytelling, and superb control of atmosphere of a veteran filmmaker. Relic’s horror is not powered by jump-scares or gruesome violence – although it does feature some singularly disturbing body-horror effects – but by a powerful sensibility of encroaching doom. Its terrors are existential but not abstract, as they are rooted in universal anxieties about the inescapable dissolution of the self. Make no mistake: Relic is a bleak, deeply upsetting film. It obliges the viewer to dwell on uncomfortable subjects that most people would rather tuck away in a crawlspace. It does not ask but insists, pressing the viewer’s nose down into those dark corners, forcing them to breathe in the stench of mildew, mothballs, and fetid earth.

The performances of all three leads are strikingly authentic and affecting, although Nevin arguably has the most challenging role, given that her character dances unnervingly on the line between pitiable and sinister. Cinematographer Charlie Sarroff renders Edna’s home as an uncannily menacing maze, sprawling but also somehow claustrophobic, where every other room seems choked with forgotten memories that have been boxed away and stacked to the rafters. Sarroff drenches virtually every shot in a watery gloom, which can be visually monotonous at times but also makes the stuffy, grandmotherly details of Vanessa Crane’s superb production design feel appropriately oppressive rather than cozy. Meanwhile, Brian Reitzell’s score takes a step away from the shrill, skin-crawling ambient noise featured in so many recent art-horror films, favoring a softer approach that murmurs and rumbles to disquieting effect.

The film’s style and performances are enough to mark Relic as an accomplished little horror feature. However, it is James’ fantastic handling of her story’s thorny themes – and her facility for distilling free-floating dread into potent symbolism – that makes the film feel like a true achievement. About an hour into Relic’s lean 89-minute running time, the feature takes a sharp left turn into the realms of surreal, smothering nightmare, delivering one of the most powerful visual conceptions of dementia ever realized. It is the rare kind of horror-movie scene that is simultaneously richly poetic and viscerally terrifying, and the definitive sign that James is more interested in indelible imagery and emotional honesty than intelligible supernatural world-building. (Viewers who require cut-and-dried explanations for everything are inevitably going to be disappointed.) Still, the most impressive thing about Relic might be how it ends, with an unexpectedly tender scene that practically trembles with gravid, somber symbolism. It is a conclusion that both exemplifies and subverts the brutal pessimism that has dominated horror cinema for the past two decades. A more gleefully nihilistic filmmaker might punctuate their tale with a shrieking exclamation point, but James instead offers an ellipsis: Everything decays … so please hold me tight, my love.

Rating: B+

Relic is now available to rent from major online platforms.