October Horrorshow: The Relic

I love a good monster flick. Hell, I love a mediocre monster flick. Which is good for The Relic, because, while it’s a passable diversion, it’s not the second coming of Alien.

From way back in 1997, The Relic, from director Peter Hyams, features one of the more complicated beasties I’ve encountered in my decades of watching horror flicks.

Down in the Amazonian rain forest, Dr. Whitney (Lewis Van Bergen), an anthropologist, is researching a lost tribe. Like all tribes down in that jungle, they are very familiar with natural pharmaceuticals, and the good doctor goes on a very wild trip. He discovers that the tribe holds a dark secret — the key to unleashing a monster with a very bad disposition. Only, Dr. Whitney came by this information a little late, and is frantic as he realizes he has shipped the danger back to the Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

This intro is the last we see of Dr. Whitney, because the real protagonist of this flick is Dr. Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller), an evolutionary biologist employed by the museum. She’s on hand when the crates shipped by Dr. Whitney arrive at the museum, and discovers that the plant samples contained therein have a fungus on them that causes rapid growth and mutations in any animal The Relicthat ingests them. Unfortunately, she doesn’t discover this before a brutal killing happens at the museum after closing time. It appears that the monster has arrived.

Meanwhile, a gruff and superstitious police detective, Vincent D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore), has placed the museum in lockdown until he and his team can find what they think is a good old regular brutal murderer. Locking everyone in the museum is rather handy, were a viewer to think about things too much. After all, a monster movie like this works best when the cast is in a confined environment and the baddie can winnow them down one by one. Well, maybe ‘best’ is the wrong word, but it’s certainly the most convenient for filmmakers. It keeps the plot constrained, and also keeps costs down.

The museum is a great location for this kind of flick, too. It’s a maze of a building with plenty of places for a monster to hide, and plenty of opportunities for unfortunate cast members to wander off and become monster kibble. Hyams even goes so far as to include an underground tunnel segment — a lovely trope, indeed.

As for the monster itself, it works much better when it sticks to the shadows. Once it makes its grand appearance, one can see that it is vintage late 1990s CGI, with all that entails. The film was shot rather dark, which helps when it comes to the CGI, but the wheels finally fly off during the climactic scene. Stan Winston was in charge of the creature effects, so there is a peerless level of professionalism, but it’s a rather anonymous entry into his oeuvre, nestled somewhere in between the stellar work he was part of in Aliens and Predator, and the silly creature that was featured in Leviathan. 

Fans of monster films won’t find anything original in The Relic, but that’s okay. Sometimes all a viewer wants is something mindless with a decent pace. That’s The Relic. When you want to watch a monster flick, but don’t feel like watching The Thing for the hundredth time, there’s always something like The Relic close at hand.

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