Relic (2020)

JULY 8, 2020


Heads up: this isn't so much of a review of Relic as it is a "Collins Crypt" type piece on going to the drive-in - I just want to get that out of the way right off the bat.

Because of Covid-19's continued decimation of our daily life, movie theaters continue to be closed, and even the slightest hint of "we might reopen soon!" is met with near universal derision by even the biggest moviegoing champions (i.e. people like me). I have indirectly lost my BMD job thanks to theaters being closed (we were owned by Alamo Drafthouse - it was healthy ticket and concession sales at their theaters that allowed side efforts like BMD to continue) and even I have no real desire to return to the cinema until a vaccine is available. It's literally affected my livelihood and I say wait - what's your excuse, Christopher Nolan fans? Now,dDo I miss going? Of course I do; I consider the lack of being able to go to a movie a big part of why my mental health is increasingly troubled. But I'll take mood swings and staring at a wall over my lungs deteriorating because I caught a deadly disease at a matinee of Halloween Kills.

The solution, sort of, has been drive-in movie theaters, a nearly dead form that is now thriving again. The few that existed are having huge numbers, and places like Wal-mart are turning their parking lots into temporary versions. On paper, it is indeed a perfect consolation prize - you're "sort of" outdoors, and you're "sort of" with a crowd, but you don't really come into contact with anyone beyond the box office clerk (or the snack bar person if you dare; I bring my own food), making it safer than even your trip to the grocery store. And for folks like me, it's the only real way to watch a movie uninterrupted by the other people in the house - by the time my son goes to bed, I'm often too tired to make it through an entire movie (despite being stuck in my house 95% of the time, I'm not able to watch more movies than I did prior to quarantine, because the work/daycare schedule hasn't changed).

However, the drive-ins I've been to - and reports from people going to others - is that the actual experience of watching a movie at one is less than ideal. For starters, as we've learned from the endless supply of recent "Karen" videos, a lot of of people are selfish and/or morons. If I can go a full 15 minutes without someone's headlights glaring off the screen, I consider it a minor victory, and that's just the ones that can be controlled. Last night's presentation of Relic was interrupted by a train going by, its giant light bouncing off the screen the entire time - that's a relatively minor but not unimportant chunk of the film that I couldn't really see, nor could I focus on because I was too frustrated by the interruption. Add in the other sounds and lights from the nearby area (I picked a good spot, then a car in front of me moved, probably to avoid the same harsh light from a garage next door that was now in *my* eyes instead) and you might join me in wondering how it is this was any better than being interrupted by my kid asking to watch Youtube videos instead.

I also began wondering how it is that horror films became such a staple of drive-ins, when they are often filled with dark images and well made sound mixes, neither of which can be properly presented in this environment. Perhaps with a really terrific sound system in your car it can sound OK (Halloween and its first sequel sounded just fine to me last fall when I went for a special presentation), but it's still an FM broadcast - not exactly powerful in the best circumstances. And even if everyone can manage to leave their headlights off, the projection in these places tends to be a bit washed out, since there's nothing to block the light of the environment itself - even the goddamn moon is working against you in this situation.

Let's use Relic as an example! (Ironically, when I said I was seeing Relic people thought I meant the '90s monster movie THE Relic, which was notoriously too dark.) Most of the movie takes place inside a decaying, dimly lit house, so even daytime set scenes are hardly bursting with light, but while this would be fine on a normal (well calibrated) TV it meant that on a drive-in screen the nighttime scenes were often impossible to make anything out. There's an apparent scare in an "under the bed" moment, but damned if I could see whatever spooked Emily Mortimer's character. Also, her mother, suffering from some kind of dementia, leaves notes around the house to help her out, and they were often considered important enough to warrant a closeup insert shot so we could see what they said, but out of around ten such notes I could only read one ("Flush", on a toilet) throughout the film. Even if I bottled the most ideal second of my viewing experience to stretch it out for the film's 90 minute runtime (that is, no trains, no headlights, no morons next to me constantly restarting/shutting off their car), I'd still have trouble simply SEEING some of the film's images.

And as you might expect given the "all in a house" description I just offered, it's not exactly an action packed movie. The plot is simple enough: a woman (Mortimer) and her daughter (Bella Heathcoate) head to the former's mother's house, as they haven't heard from her in a while. The house is in shambles and the older woman (Robyn Nevin) is gone, only to return a couple days later with no memory of where she was. The two stay with her for a few days while they try to find a place for her, but her dementia starts to take scary turns - is she even really their "Nan" anymore? The three actors are terrific, and carry the entire film as there are no other major characters (a neighbor boy has the next most amount of screentime after them, and it totals about 75 seconds, if that), so it's not about a body count or whatever - the focus is entirely on what is happening to the woman and if she poses a threat to her daughter and granddaughter.

In other words it can/will be described as a "slow burn" type of film - which is the sort of thing that might even lose some of its impact in a normal theater, let alone a drive-in. Some movies just work better at home, and this is most certainly one of them, making it a peculiar choice for IFC Midnight to put on drive-in screens ahead of its VOD release this week. I enjoyed it, sure, but the early reviews from a festival described it as a movie that left some audience members completely devastated by its closing moments, and while I can see why they'd feel that way, I never even came close to getting worked up about it. And I'm an easy mark for this sort of thing (potential loss of a parent), especially this time of the year as the anniversary of my father's death is just two weeks away. At home, I'm sure I'd be crying or at least emotional - but it was truly impossible to get that invested given the venue.

So I think from now on I will reserve my drive-in experiences for movies I've already seen, where my own memories can fill in what I might be missing due to this or that distraction (I had a great time at a Jaws/Tremors double feature the previous week) or at least for movies I don't really care about and just need an excuse to (safely!) get out of the house for a while. That Dave Bautista movie where he teams up with a little girl, for example - if I'm ever bored enough to drive an hour to see that, I'm sure I won't care much about the occasional (but sadly guaranteed) interruptions. The nostalgic factor is a blast - the pre-show entertainment they put together last night, with vintage trailers and concession bumpers, put a big smile on my face - but for a well regarded "elevated" horror film like this, that I was really looking forward to? I'll do my best to wait until my son goes to sleep, I think.

What say you?

P.S. If you're heading to the drive-in, I highly encourage bringing a portable FM radio! Every night I've seen people in need of a jump when the movie ended as their car stereo drained their battery.


  1. This brings back memories of the drive-in theaters of my youth! I no longer live within reasonable distance of such a venue and I miss it (yes, the aggravations, too). This definitely sounds like a view-at-home movie and I plan to catch it when available.

  2. I saw this movie when it came out (thankfully it was in a theater so no distractions from annoying cars or trains). I had my expectations low and I'm glad I did. It left me feeling more sad than scared, and I suppose that's the point. I will say though that the parts that were "scary" were done really well. Pretty unique take in my opinion without overusing jump scares. Its worth a watch for sure but its not amazing. I think the writers goal to exaggerate the horrors and sadness of dementia was spot on, therefore its a home run in my opinion. I think the final ending (spoilers) where she rips off her dead skin was a bit too forced for me, but that's what happens when suits push for something more "shocking."


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