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The Relic Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 3, 2010

    The Relic Review

    “Smoking pot is a misdemeanor. Decapitation seems a bit severe ...”

    Peter Hyams went right back to basics in 1997 when he unleashed his jolting adaptation of the Lincoln Child/Douglas Preston best-selling novel The Relic, with a totally unashamed monster movie that is clearly in love with the genre that spawned it. Fortified with a superlative creature design from the late great Stan Winston, riding off the backs of his beasts in Jurassic Park and even Pumpkinhead, and bolstered with a great cast, copious gore, tremendously atmospheric set-pieces and the knock-out setting of the labyrinthine Chicago Natural History Museum, his glorious throwback flick even delivered a cheeky quasi-Crichton riff on the theory of evolution. Immensely popular at the time it came out and having enjoyed a fair amount of critical acclaim to boot, The Relic now claws its way onto Blu-ray in this long-awaited release from Lionsgate and Paramount.

    Naturally eschewing much of the scientific values that the two authors threw into their book, the first of a two-part narrative on the survival of the fittest, the second novel being Reliquary, published in 1998, the year after the movie hit the US Number 1 slot, Hyams likes to stick to some tried and trusted creature-feature formulas and, in so doing, brings to the screen a brazen and unabashed crowd-pleaser. After a disturbing and mysterious prologue set deep in the South American jungle that has us bearing witness to some bizarre flame-lit witchdoctory taking place, and a frightened anthropologist stumbling across something unpleasant in the hold of a sea-freighter, a dark and ominous tone of unpredictable savagery is generated. Before long the vessel has wound up in Chicago with a crew of decapitated sailors floating around in the bilge. Seemingly connected to this shocking massacre is the gruesome murder of a night-watchman in the museum up the road. For superstitious Lt. Vincent D'Agosta (Tom Sizemore), losing custody of his dog to his ex-wife is just the beginning of a string of mounting bad luck as the deaths pile up and his warnings about a killer being loose in the museum on the eve of a prestigious, celebrity-stuffed gala opening for a new exhibition fall on deaf ears. With something extremely nasty on the prowl, petty bureaucracy gumming-up his investigation and his gut instincts telling him that all hell is going to break loose, it seems that he is going to have his hands full.

    Strange artefacts and unusual crates turning up only add to the puzzle, and the legend of a hybrid tribal god called the Kothoga adds a blood-curdling frisson to D'Agosta's mystifying case. There is, indeed, a monster on the premises and the cop is determined to root it out despite the sceptics that surround him.

    On the academic side, however, he does find a solid ally in the feisty form of Penelope Ann Miller's eco-friendly Professor Margot Green and, together, they will unravel the ghastly secret that a foolishly probing scientist unearthed back in the Amazon Basin - a ghastly secret that is now ravenously hungry and, thanks to the belligerent politics of the museum's hierarchy and the city's unheeding officialdom, happily about to chow down on a veritable human banquet of party-guests, boffins and social dignitaries. The two find themselves in a desperate race against time as disaster befalls the big event and everyone gets conveniently locked-in with the beast. The original novel, based on the research of Douglas Preston (who was a curator and writer for the New York Natural History Museum where the original book's story is actually set) and the fears that his co-writer, Lincoln Child, had for the spooky hall of bones that his buddy worked in, gets an energetic shot in the arm from Hyams who, understandably streamlines the narrative, gels certain characters together and opts for a pretty much relentless approach to a scenario that is already packed with tension. The beast craves the nectar of the human hypothalamus gland and, in a refreshingly neat hand-in-hand, the film actually does offer a few titbits for the grey cells to mull over as well.

    Playing against such a large-scale backdrop as this, the situation calls for a lot of characters and incidents, and the cast all seem to rise above the conventions and the clichés that, in other screenplays and under the direction of someone less pragmatic than Hyams, would possibly have sunk the film. D'Agosta's overly superstitious nature, for instance, is hammered home to the degree of what should be risible corniness yet somehow skirts around this thanks to Sizemore's laconic hangdog attitude. The actor even throws in a few withering glances at his sidekick, Hollingsworth, when the lackey commits any fate-baiting act in his company, such as stepping over a corpse, that ground his character much more than any needless exposition could ever do. And I like the way that it is always D'Agosta's face reflected in the eerie shots of broken mirrors during the early investigation - the relevance of the broken mirrors quite subtly played out, as it transpires. It is also commendable that the various bit-parters loitering at the periphery of the story - a couple of lower ranking cops who bicker-banter their way through several scrapes, a grant-chasing rival of Margot's and the sarcastic, patronising and sour-faced Mayor - all produce interpretations that probably go beyond how they initially appeared on paper. John McTiernan's milestone of Die Hard is to thank for all this. McTiernan really managed to imbue even those characters with the most minimal of screen-time with some greater degree of presence - all of the terrorists, for example, were unique and individual, as well as being credible. Hyams performs the same trick here with no-one appearing to be simply tacked-on or thrown into the mix for no real purpose other than just for padding out the action scenes. Incidentally, trivia-fans, one of the bad guys from Die Hard 2 crops up here as a cop, and the snidey Mayor is played by the advisory passenger who tells Bruce Willis how to unwind after flying in the first Die Hard, further anchoring that connection with characterisation.

    “Using superstition to bring people to the museum is like hiring topless ushers for the Bolshoi Ballet.”

    “Well, I wish they would ... I might start going to the Ballet.”

    Penelope Ann Miller may not be quite the full-on glamour-puss that producers these days would have sought-out for the courageous role of Margot, but she definitely has a sexy appeal that enables her innate cuteness to sit happily alongside her alleged scientific authority. Getting hastily changed into her cocktail dress and, later on, legging-it away from the beast, sans high-heels, reveals a figure that would certainly guarantee an interest in areas other than her hypothalamus. But she doesn't seem like she is there for attractive set-dressing or simple damsel-in-distress duty either. Her first horror film, having appeared mainly in romantic dramas until De Palma's awesome Carlito's Way brought her into a wider appeal, she admitted to being profoundly unnerved by the experience. Hyams would deliberately spook her on-set so that her terrified reactions to things suddenly leaping out at her or abruptly hammering from the other side of buckling bulkhead doors would be completely authentic.

    “Something's wrong. This brain is light ... even for a man's.”

    I've always loved the image of Tom Sizemore and a vengeful German Shepherd police dog thundering through the gloomy tunnels together. Somewhat recalled with Will Smith in I Am Legend a good few years later, this makes for a marvellously emotive picture of devoted action, even if you can pretty much tell how things are going to turn out. Sizemore, as troubled as he has come to be, is always good value. Freaking out over his cover being blown in Point Break (“You think I like my hair like this, man?”), confidently trading shots with the cops in the big robbery in Heat, or totally nailing the part of real-life battle-hardened Ranger, Danny McBride, in Ridley Scott's superlative combat-flick, Black Hawk Down or even Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan - Sizemore is rarely permitted to step out from the bubble of supporting role, but his gruffly low-key persona is finally allowed to shine here in The Relic.

    In this case, able support for him comes in all shapes and sizes. Clayton Rohner's henpecked goofball Hollingsworth begins as a bit of a whipping-boy for the exasperated D'Agosta but, as the situation deteriorates, finds the resolve to become something of a reluctant, yet dependable hero. The diminutive Linda Hunt, famous for her Oscar-nabbing, gender-reversing role as Billy Kwan in Peter Weir's political drama The Year Of Living Dangerously opposite a young Mel Gibson, is forthright and semi-crotchety as the museum's illustrious director, and then there is the great James Whitmore (so brilliant in the classic fifties creature-feature Them! - see separate review - that memories of those giant ants would definitely have been flitting through his mind whilst his character contemplates the evolutionary threat at large in the shadows of the museum) who essays the likeably irascible Professor Frock, wheelchair-bound and delightfully steadfast in his outlandish opinions and theories on aberrant strands of species. This bit of casting is something that surely warms the cockles of the heart of any fan of the genre, akin to Joe Dante casting The Thing From Another World's hero, Kenneth Tobey, in his excellent werewolf flick, The Howling.

    “What could a young cop like you want with an old fossil like me?”

    Hyams has always stated that he wanted to adhere to the old school style of keeping his monster in the shadows, but he does realise that with a design this good, and this unusual, he just has to showcase it at some point. Fundamentally reptilian, the Kothoga is also topped-off with something of a Predator-style unfurling fang configuration, further stamping Stan Winston's mark on the creation. The bulk and movement of the beast was slightly recalled by the Henson Studio designed armour-plated monster in Christophe Gans' awesome Les Pacte Des Loups (Brotherhood Of The Wolf) and even by the alien dragon in the more recent Outlander. And you have to give both himself and his FX-crew, under Winston's tutelage, a lot of credit for the terrific angles with which they exploit it. Belying its considerable bulk with a sinuous and almost balletic speed and grace, this voracious critter can shimmy up walls, crawl upside-down along ceilings, bound across museum exhibits like a steroid-packed gazelle and barrel through water like a shark crossed with a torpedo. But the most emphatic and memorable image of the beast is of it charging headlong through a dozen or so doors and walls that stand between it and the pert retreating derrière of the film's heroine. Thundering at us like a rhino, this sequence is a tour de force of heart-in-the-mouth suspense. Mind you, it does seem able to navigate the tunnels, halls and chambers of the museum with almost supernatural ease, allowing it to appear in different places, far removed, in the blink of an eye.

    The gore is good, too. With a beast whose dietary preference is for that hard-to-get-at hypothalamus gland residing in the human brain you just have to show some heads coming adrift, don't you? I mean, you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, right? So, to this end, we've got noggins separated from their stems in a variety of inventive ways and bounced around the frame. There is a gleefully extended autopsy sequence that has us examining a victim's detached head in close-up, as well as the brain that was wrenched out of it - though this is, perhaps, a mistaken indulgence as the head isn't all that convincing, but, hey, at least they tried. One body is neatly sliced in two and there is even a poor young lady who belches up blood when her face is smashed into the glass of a revolving door during the, admittedly, over the top and actually quite hysterical mass stampede when all the guests panic. The airport crowd frenzy in Die Hard 2 is nothing compared to this tuxedo'd tumble of bodies as the party goes mentally ballistic in the impromptu evacuation.

    The most impressive effect just has to come courtesy of what is surely the movie's main money-shot. I remember being vocally wowed at the flicks at the moment when one poor SWAT guy discovers that he cannot outrun the beast and that his spine is not nearly tough enough to withstand its enormous claws - all in one gloriously realised shot of eye-popping, in-yer-face carnage. It is nice to note, too, that this sequence still looks good even today.

    “Seven decapitations in one week. Don't you just hate killers who take head and never give it?”

    The Relic was one of those mainstream horror films that came along during a time when directors and studios were loathe to label their productions as such, afraid that to do so would incur some sort of audience avoidance program. But this is where a filmmaker like Hyams comes into his own. He loves the genre and this clearly shows. He throws the money at the screen and gives his productions a big, detailed and lavish sort of spectacle that can be seen in everything from the outdoor SF adventure yarn Capricorn One to the claustrophobic, but brilliantly realised Outland (BD release puh-leeze!), by way of the sedate beauty of 2010 and the urbanised action of Timecop and The Presidio. The Relic is possibly his most assured feature after Outland and it is a shame that he has not, to date, tackled the second book in the series.

    In recent years we have had the awesome Slither and Korea's ace The Host that embody the same spirit of monstrous abandon. Even Guillermo Del Toro had a stab at the unabashed creature-flick with those ghastly moth-men in Mimic, which sort of treads the same fertile ground of dangerous species offshoot as The Relic and is, if anything, a lot creepier. But The Relic is fast, fun and furious and really knows how to deliver the goods. You want a SWAT team taking on the monster? You got it. You want to see the beast on fire and still coming at ya, Balrog-style? It's here all right. You want a massive bodycount? Aye, all present and correct, sir! Penny for penny, Hyams' shocker offers some of the best value monster-mayhem around.

    The film always looks glossy and high-budget too, which is a minor miracle when you consider that a large portion of it takes place in the dank, fetid tunnels and ductways underneath the marble floors of the museum. Hyams is also a trained cinematographer and has acted in this capacity on many of his own movies, including this one, and he certainly knows how to exploit his locations. Sweeping cameras glide along the vast corridors and halls, creeping up on characters and smoothly tracking them as they move around. He is also not averse to allowing the odd lens flare to illuminate the frame, putting his distinctive style all over the picture. The film always looks expansive and the setting really has size and depth on its side unlike, say, Night At The Museum, in which the establishment actually seems rather minuscule. Even relatively simple shots of the camera cruising up to Margot as she signs herself out at the museum's front desk during a creepy early sequence have an impressive visual mood that instils the notion that we are watching a B-movie with deliberate A-list ambitions and a visual flourish that celebrates the tropes of the horror film.

    Aiding this stylistic aura, the director builds up the sense of menace and of suspense quite expertly. He has not always been successful at this, of course. The Musketeer and Timecop often floundered under the weight of their own momentum and End Of Day was just plain stupid. But The Relic is a genuine powerhouse of a movie. Hyams adroitly juxtaposes the decorum and glitz of the red carpet treatment of the gala opening with the determined and dogged police search taking place behind the scenes, pumping up the unease of the overall situation and maintaining the impetus of both dread and excitement. The sudden conviction of a shotgun fusillade after the ripped-up carcass of one of the police dogs is hurled out of the shadows is staggeringly galvanising and immediately cathartic. An attempt to halt the closing of a bulkhead door with a flimsy chair is equally as adrenal. Splitting-up the groups of survivors into different locations, various ragtag processions with their own internal dynamics, is also something that could have wreaked havoc with the mood of the piece, disjointing our empathy with the disparate bands, but becomes a great device that literally keeps you on your toes when you realise that the creature could pop up anywhere and at any time, and that no-one is safe. In this way, Hyams keeps us on edge, his shock scenes almost always hitting the target dead centre. He admits that he is not above cheap scares, too, and his array of false alarms work just as well as his proper “stingers”. He loves shadows, gloom and rain to help distract, disorient and unnerve - not quite in the same manner as Michael J. Bassett, perhaps, who positively thrives on obscuring the image with the stuff (see Deathwatch, Wilderness and Solomon Kane), but enough to cloud the visuals and allows for acres of darkness that could hide a multitude of terrors. Or one bloody big one. This playing about with light and shadow has become a trademark and even though authentic to the situation, The Relic can become a frustratingly gloomy-looking affair at times.

    Appropriately enough, though, The Relic is a survivor amongst so many other entries in the field that just wouldn't pass muster these days. Not as satirical as Alligator, nor as enthusiastically juvenile as CHUD, which both thrive on similarly extensive subterranean sequences, Hyams' monster movie is one of a rare breed that can sit happily alongside Predator, The Fly and The Howling, even if it falls a good couple of notches beneath the titans of the form in Jaws, Alien and The Thing. Benefiting from taking its material seriously and presenting so much action and carnage without it ever once becoming repetitive, The Relic is top-tier entertainment that is just as exciting today as it was when it first ploughed across cinema screens and comes very highly recommended.