How dementia inspired Natalie Erika James’ horror movie ‘Relic’

Natalie Erika James and Dana Miltins on the set of ‘Creswick.’

Writer-director Natalie Erika James has drawn on painful personal experience for her debut feature, psychological horror movie Relic.

Co-written with Christian White, the film will centre on three generations of women – daughter, mother and grandmother – who are haunted by a manifestation of aged dementia that takes over their family home.

Relic was inspired by the experience of Alzheimer’s within my own family and the shift in family dynamics as we slowly have to parent our parents,” the US-born, Japanese-Australian writer, director and producer tells IF. “At its core, it explores the fear and heartbreak of dementia and ageing through a horror lens.”

Shooting will start in Melbourne and at various locations in Victoria later this year, co-produced by Carver Films’ Sarah Shaw and Anna McLeish and a US producer who is yet to be revealed.

The Carver Films partners met the filmmaker after seeing her VCA graduation short Tritch, the saga of a wealthy Shanghai housewife who is haunted by the ghost of the daughter she once aborted. With nothing in development she hastily pulled together the concept for a feature version of the short, which they politely passed on. Four years later she pitched Relic.

She first met White at a film festival in 2012. By chance he worked at a hole-in-the-wall T-shirt shop on her street so they often ran into each other. “We bonded over our love for horror and Stephen King and trialed each other out with a few smaller projects before diving into Relic,” she says.

Casting is yet to be announced. Screen Australia and Film Victoria are co-funding the production, Endeavour Content will handle international sales and Umbrella Entertainment is the Australian distributor

James had a great learning experience on a Film Victoria-funded director’s attachment on Leigh Whannell’s sci-fi thriller Upgrade. “It was an amazing ride, a genre filmmaker’s dream. I learned a lot from observing the world of the film come together – the elaborate sets and props, the insane prosthetics and stunts. Leigh was incredibly generous with his time and getting to see his process with the actors – Logan Marshall Green in particular – was invaluable,” she says.

Her 2016 short Creswick premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival and screened at more than 50 festivals including the New York Film Festival, Fantastic Fest, Fantasia and the Atlanta Film Festival. Dana Miltins played a woman whose fear of her childhood home intensifies after her ageing father claims there is another presence in the house.

James is part of the creative team including Heidi Lee Douglas, Donna McRae, Catriona McKenzie, Rebecca Thomson and Belinda McClory who are developing a horror anthology with Unicorn Films. Screen Australia supported the development. The majority of the segments will relate to the female body and sexuality from a woman’s perspective.

“There are so many great female horror filmmakers in Australia who should be supported. Briony Kidd, for example, runs a fantastically curated female horror film festival called Stranger With My Face, which always has a great turnout of filmmakers,” she says.

Coincidentally Megan Riakos and Kidd are collating an anthology of horror short films directed by women.