Almost every horror fan enjoys a good creature feature, but sometimes it can be hard to find one that plays it mostly straight without descending into complete self-parody. Peter Hyams’ The Relic is just that kind of monster movie, presenting an air of sophistication that distracts you from its roots in outright schlock.
It was one of the few times that Hyams—who has many thriller, sci-fi, and action films in his credits—jumped into the horror pool. Previously, he ventured into supernatural territory with the 1992 fantasy comedy Stay Tuned, which saw John Ritter and Pam Dawber running through a satellite dish system powered by Hell. It wasn’t exactly what many would call horror, but still, check it out if you haven’t—there’s some good dark comedy jokes that would make readers of this site cackle.
The Relic—based on the novel Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child—saw Hyams going whole hog into horror, complete with creature effects by Stan Winston and a script co-written by Amy Holden Jones of The Slumber Party Massacre. When the film begins, we meet John Whitney (Lewis Van Bergen), an anthropologist studying a tribe in Brazil. After being fed a suspicious mixture, he races to a nearby port to stop the transport of crates he was having sent to his natural history museum in Chicago.
When those efforts fail, he sneaks aboard the vessel, but finds to his horror that the crates were never loaded and he is trapped on the ship, which has already set sail. When it finally arrives weeks later in Chicago, there is no sign of the crew—until Police
Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) and Detective Hollingsworth (Clayton Rohner, a veteran of many horror pictures) find their slaughtered bodies in the bilge.
Whitney’s crates also show up at the museum, where its curator (Linda Hunt) and two of its scientists (James Whitmore and Penelope Ann Miller) find their contents to be leaves with a mysterious fungus and a statue of the Kothoga—a mythical god who was believed to be the son of Satan. It isn’t long before an actual Kothoga creature is loose in the museum and kills a guard, taking a part of his brain known as the hypothalamus.
When D’Agosta learns that the bodies on the vessel were also missing those parts, he draws a connection between the murders. Unfortunately, it does not prevent the museum’s gala opening of its new “Superstition” exhibit, where the creature begins going after other victims before its literally “explosive” finale. The Relic will never be mistaken for high art, but it is a lot of fun that even Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave a thumbs up.
It helps that the film is stacked with great performers, including the always likable Miller, Whitmore, and Linda Hunt as the museum staff. Sizemore and Rohner’s performances are also good, particularly at selling the movie’s running gags of D’Agosta’s own superstitious nature and how he recently lost his dog in a custody hearing with his ex-wife. Even Mrs. Roper herself, Audra Lindley, shows up to steal a scene in one of her last roles as a darkly comic coroner.
It also helps when you have a great monster, and the Kothoga is a pretty impressive one, particularly in sequences where it attacks police officers entering through a skylight, or pursuing Miller through a specimen storage area. But The Relic is not without its flaws, which may be due to Hyams’ inexperience with horror.
The veteran director does a great job of keeping up the pace and tone, which helps the viewer overlook some groaners in the dialogue (the insult “you really are a gerbil” has never been one of my favorites). However, he stumbles when it comes to filming the action in the second half of the movie. Hyams—who served as his own cinematographer on The Relic, as he did on many of his movies—films some of the action way too dark, to the point where you’re struggling to see what’s going on.
Having said that, The Relic still ranks as a solid creature feature. It may not deserve to have the pedigree of other big-budget horror offerings of the late 1990s—such as Event Horizon or Deep Rising—but it’s a gem that shouldn’t be allowed to slip through the cracks and be forgotten by horror fans.