The Relic (1997)
Starring Penelope Ann Miller, Tom Sizemore, Linda Hunt and James Whitmore
Directed by Peter Hyams
Continuing the addition of Entertainment Maven’s foray into the world of online film streaming, I found myself on the Netflix main page for around 25 minutes last evening. The problem I’ve always had with selecting films to watch in a platform such as Netflix is the pool of content is so large my indecisiveness gets the better of me and often I end up perusing spoilerishly written synopses for the majority of the evening that ruin the film and disengage my interest from title to title. Thankfully I wasn’t alone and a friend was more than willing to point out a little ditty I watched as a young boy that stood out to me at the time, Peter Hyam’s sci-fi horror hybrid The Relic. I remember The Relic as an amalgamation of elements lifted from titles like Aliens, T2: Judgment Day and Predator to name a few obvious comparisons. Even as a young boy unfazed by brutal and grotesque cinematic violence and gore, I remember The Relic standing out and leaving quite an impression on the 11 year old version of myself, an impression that’s left a lasting comparative resonance towards similar films within the genre. I decided to revisit The Relic once again so I could draw a few conclusions as to what element/s had left such an impression on me or at a very minimum how it compares to recent special effects-driven films. After viewing it again, I was surprised to find myself just as entertained as I was as a boy, all-the-while acknowledging The Relic’s dated effects and criminally ludicrous logic.
The Relic begins as we see an Anthropologist named Prof. John Whitney somewhere in the Brazilian Rainforest studying an ancient tribe of unknown descent. The tribesmen offer the Professor a drink made from some jungle leaves, causing him to experience hallucinations while a tribesman lunges around him in a threatening costume.
We then move along to the Chicago Museum of Natural History where final preparations have begun for the grand opening of a new superstition-themed exhibit which is scheduled for a Grand Opening Gala to be attended by the Mayor and his political friends. It’s here we meet Dr. Margo Green(Penelope Ann Miller), an evolutionary biologist fighting to keep her department staff employed by competing for a needed grant against a snooty, venal colleague(Chi Moui Lo). Working alongside Green is Dr. Albert Frock (James Whitmore), her mentor and confidante who theorizes the existence of periodic leaps in evolutionary bio-science resulting in mutation, a theory that is as foreboding as is interesting. Hmm… I wonder if the abomination Dr. Frock theorizes will make an appearance?
At the same time we meet Lt. Vincent D’agousta (Tom Sizemore) as he’s called in to investigate an abandoned cargo ship that’s been towed into the Chicago Harbor under suspicion of a drug-related hijacking. Once D’agousta discovers the remains of the crew on-board, he begins to theorize a much more sinister force is at work while his colleagues dismiss the grotesque killings as a cartel execution. After a vicious attack on staff and visitors at the museum that matches the rampage of the cargo ship, Lt. D’agousta connects the two investigations due to a shared missing organ and tries to have the aforementioned gala postponed, his concerns being dismissed by the political grandstanding of the Mayor and his police connections . While Lt. D’agousta sees this as a psychotic man on some form of drug-related killing spree, conveniently after the gala begins the real perpetrator makes it’s horrifyingly grotesque presence felt.
From here on out the audience is treated to a fun and highly entertaining thrill ride as the titular monster wrecks havoc on any characters that cross its path. It’s this stretch in the narrative where The Relic is at its best – the satisfying manner in which the beast kills its prey and the karmic moments when any and all characters who’ve slighted our protagonists meet their end in brutally entertaining fashion.
The Relic also stands above similarly-themed films thanks in large part to its exceptional sound department, which for me was the stand-out of the film. Genre films that try to spook and scare its audience in today’s era often neglect the sound design in favor of relying on a sharp musical notation coupled with jump-editing that results in the appearance of amateurish, lazy work. The best creature features almost always have a great sound department that understands the benefits of establishing a consistent mood and tone through the use of sound design and mixing. Knowing when to lower and raise a film’s score and effects to drive a scene in the narrative often make or break movies like this. When it works it can effectively manipulate your senses: the hairs on your body rise and you’ve been pulled deeper into the story. The Relic uses this practice to perfection, beginning in the opening scene and credits and really hits its stride during the creature’s first attack. The score is muted and the audience hears the creature for the first time. It’s a terrifying moment and the suspense built in that scene raises tension and sustains that feeling the rest of the movie.
It’s worth noting Stan Winston and his team provided the creature designs and effects, and regardless of the fact the effects look exceedingly dated, the work still holds up. This isn’t just a testament to the impact Stan Winston made during his life on the industry; there is far more influential work on his part from other features to solidify that claim, but it’s further evidence that having a strong sound department as a backbone can distract from the weaker links in the overall product. The design of the creature is also original and fiercely intimidating making its kills far more perverse and distinctive than formulaic.
Now about those weaker links I mentioned above. It must be said that while The Relic is a highly entertaining horror/sci-fi hybrid, it does have its flaws which begin with its acting. The characters in the film are one note cut-outs who don’t contribute any arc or growth to drive the narrative or provide any semblance of humanism. It’s clearly defined in the first act the characters that inhabit this world are meant to react to the actions presented by the narrative, and answer promptly when called upon to the slaughter. Frankly, and especially after revisiting the film, I get a feeling that the majority of the top-billed actors probably weren’t the first choices for the project. You know, something like “Nicolas Cage and Shakespeare” or two other things that just don’t seem right together. There’s no stand-outs worth mentioning, but this isn’t really a bad thing. It allows the viewer a chance to switch the logical side of their brain off and just enjoy it, yet doesn’t outright neglect the audience’s intelligence like so many films in this genre do today.
The only other glaring problem with The Relic are the many, many, many, logic issues I drew up while watching the film a second time. The boat clearly identified as a Brazilian cargo ship in the opening moments, travelling from Brazil, is entirely populated with a crew of Spanish workers, including the ship Captain debating its contents, who is speaking Spanish! When the police happen upon the creature’s lair, it contains many carcasses and human remains that couldn’t have reached that state of decomposition in such a little amount of time. The police are aware someone is ripping people apart in the sub-levels of a museum and send TWO officers with flashlights into the area to perform a search…TWO! And concerning the organ the creature feasts on inside the human brain: without spoiling some great effects-driven moments, the gland inside the brain that controls the production of human hormones is just that, a controller. The creature’s need to feed on this organ to obtain sustenance is akin to a person waking up in the morning with a hangover and migraine, and foregoing the aspirin to consume the plastic bottle instead. It’s ludicrous, but ultimately forgivable. The rest of the logic issues can be easily dismissed as a product of its time. It was 1996 and communications technology wasn’t what it is today. I implore you to revisit old titles from the mid Nineties and back, and try not to yell at the screen when doing so. It’s much harder than you’d think!
All in all, The Relic is a fantastically executed horror film that’s plot holes can be viewed from space but is highly enjoyable throughout thanks in large part to the superb technical work and sense of fun that permeates throughout. The Relic is a prime example of the kind of films that we never get to see today. Hollywood has become an economically and franchise-driven industry that studios and financiers are no longer willing to invest in original material, only in built-in properties and director-driven films. The Relic is a product of its time, an era wherein directors were given the artistic freedom to realize their vision as they see fit in order to entertain the audience they were aiming for. It’s successful in all of the above and I highly recommend any fans of the genre give this a try.