Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"It Belongs In A Museum!" Dusting Off THE RELIC (1997)

The Relic feels like a movie that should have come out twenty years earlier than it did. It has the distinct flavour of Seventies big-studio horror, for a number of reasons. It was based on a best-selling novel (by Douglas J. Preston and Lincoln Child). It has a cast full of mid-level famous leads, venerable character actors in supporting roles, and lots of "Hey, it's that guy!" guys (the janitor from The Breakfast Club! The "fists with your toes" guy from Die Hard!). It looks like it cost way more than it should have, a sure sign that Paramount threw more & more money at the movie rather than trying to fix its script problems. And it's directed by a filmmaker who doesn't have the firmest grasp of the genre.
The plot might have made more sense if I had read the New York Times-best selling source novel. Or not, who knows? A prologue shows us an archaeologist in a Brazilian jungle witnessing a tribal ritual of some kind, then drinking a concoction offered to him by the tribespeople. He has a bad reaction to it, then stows away on a ship bound for America to try and prevent some mysterious shipment of his from reaching civilization. Cut to Chicago several weeks later, when the ship has been found floating at sea, filled with decapitated crewmen. The baffled lead homicide detective, played by Tom Sizemore, is one of those delightfully eccentric cops who only exist in the movies--he's recently divorced (naturally), and has lost his beloved dog in the settlement. He's also obsessively superstitious, avoiding black cats and taking care not to step over dead bodies but around them. Meanwhile, at the nearby Natural History Museum, a plucky young evolutionary biologist played by Penelope Ann Miller is confounded by the arrival of a crate addressed to Dr. John Whitney--the guy we saw in the prologue--that contains a stone relic of a tribal protector/scary monster called the Kothoga, and a bunch of leaves covered in a weird orange fungus. It isn't long before security guards start turning up without their heads, and a bug that gets into the fungus samples is mutated into an oversized monstrosity (one that Miller's ever-curious scientist immediately squashes). None of this stops the museum from having a big gala opening of its new latest exhibition, though, and before you can say "We've got to close the beaches!", the rampaging Kothoga beast--kind of a cross between a Komodo dragon and a sabretooth tiger, I guess?--is making short work of well-dressed gala guests.
The biggest problem with The Relic is that the origin of the Kothoga monster is extremely confusing. If I understand it correctly, the tribe periodically uses the fungus to transform its warriors into a Kothoga when they are threatened, and the stuff Whitney drinks in the prologue turns him into the very monster that goes buck wild in the museum. I'm not sure why he wanted to stop the shipment of his stuff to Chicago--it's explained that it was mistakenly sent by air instead of sea--and I'm not clear how he/it got to the museum from the boat (there's a sewer chase at one point, so I guess that might be how he got around), or why he headed there at all. All of this might have been explained in a perfectly satisfactory fashion, but the first half of the movie is so plodding, my attention was constantly wandering away. Not even distinguished thespians like Linda Hunt and James Whitmore can make the dull first hour interesting. Director Peter Hyams is better known for his sci-fi efforts like Outland, Time Cop, and the underrated 2010, but other than his producing gig on my beloved Monster Squad, he doesn't have a lot of experience generating fright. Acting as his own cinematographer, Hyams makes The Relic look like a nice bit of classy, big-budget horror, but the scares just aren't there. The Kothoga, designed by Stan Winston and realized through a combination of animatronics and perfectly serviceable CGI, is an admittedly impressive creation, and that rarest of beasts--a new movie monster. When it rips into an unsuspecting SWAT team, the movie finally comes alive for the first time. But with such a convoluted origin story and uninteresting first half to contend with, it's too little, too late, and the movie's near-forgotten status today reflects these shortcomings. Sandwiched as it was between the twin terror phenomenons of Scream's postmodern slasher hijinks in 1996 and the birth of the found-footage horror genre with The Blair Witch Project in 1999, The Relic certainly does seem like the product of a bygone era.

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