Review: The Relic

Directed by: Peter Hyams
Written by: Amy Holden Jones, John Raffo, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Starring: Penelope Ann Miller, Tom Sizemore, Linda Hunt, James Whitmore, Clayton Rohner
Released: 1997 / Genre: Horror / Country: USA / IMDB
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Penelope Ann Miller stars as an evolutionary biologist who, after her colleague goes missing when on the hunt for a mysterious mythical creature named the Kothoga, finds herself at the center of a murder investigation, of which the killer in question decapitates its victims. With a boat from South America found with its entire crew dead, and then the security guard at Chicago’s Natural History Museum, where Miller’s character works, found headless in the toilets, the police besiege the building in search of their killer. However, with the museum’s new exhibit opening that very night, not even the head of the investigation, played by Tom Sizemore, has the power to prevent it, and soon enough, when the doors have closed, several dozen smiling faces become several dozen helpless victims.

the relic, film, horror, peter hyams

Director Peter Hyams attempts to bring some originality to the horror genre by placing a number of people in a building they cannot escape from without going through very dark tunnels, through basements and along air shafts. The interesting thing he brings to the genre here is by introducing a killer, who stalks the people in the building, offing as many as it possibly can in more and more elaborate ways. The major problem he is faced with is, by making a film of this genre, the only way he could make it original is through its subject matter. However, what we are presented with is a rehash of better films, written by better writers and directed by better directors. The first film that comes to my mind is Alien, and if only Hyams had paid more attention to Ridley Scott’s techniques, we might have been in for a much improved film.

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The Relic starts off okay, with some interesting if convoluted exposition, and some tension filled sequences involving the security guard who investigates the noise, and a pair of kids who get lost in the basement. Add in some scientific gibberish that makes little to no sense, and you are sucked in; out of the science loop the audience goes, making us keenly listen to every detail that doesn’t require a P.H.D in biology to understand. Hyams keeps things dark and quiet, slowly building the suspense, which works well, but it is unfortunate he didn’t employ the same technique for the second half of the picture.

As soon as the killer is unveiled, or should I say, as soon as Godzilla rears its evil head in front of the camera, all suspense and tension is lost. Character’s scream, run and die, yet for some reason we believe we’ve seen it all before and of course, we have. The special effects take over, and it seems either the director or the studio wanted to show off those effects more than they wanted to scare the audience because, although it says on the box, ‘The creature can hold its own with the Alien’, it simply can’t, and the more we see it, the less we become afraid of it.

the relic, film, horror, peter hyams

I find it amusing that no less than four writers were involved in the script, and yet blatant cliches, gaping plot holes and a total lack of originality passed them by. However, you can’t blame them: this is Hollywood after all, and according to the powers that be, characters suddenly coming to conclusions that win the day, as if they plucked them out of mid-air, and the continuation of the saga: ‘man/woman investigates strange noise down dark corridor’ – is apparently what we want.

So, did I enjoy this film? Strangely, yes, so maybe the powers that be got it right? As mentioned the opening is tension filled, with some well shot sequences, especially a look up the stairwell from above and below, which really sets in a sense of foreboding, as the stairs increasingly get darker as they disappear out of sight below.

the relic, film, horror, peter hyams,

Tom Sizemore is well cast in the role of tough, superstitious cop. The ‘superstitious’ part of his character is pretty much force-fed to us, another black mark for the four writers, but overall he’s the most interesting and sympathetic character. Penelope Ann Miller is also fine as the female lead, yet she certainly doesn’t match Ripley in either stature or on the written page.

The Relic on paper, promises more than it can deliver. Hyams’ direction lacks a maturity for the horror genre, with him not being able to stick to the slow build up that worked well in the first half of the film. Perhaps he felt the ‘show more’ technique added to the excitement but it only dampened it by relinquishing the film’s major asset – the suspense in not knowing what ‘it’ was. However, the film motors along at a fair pace, and for some reason seeing people run, screaming down dark corridors does have a value of entertainment. It is an enjoyable film, but you have to switch your brain off, or if you can’t do that, as you’ll see, there’s something rather nasty that will take your head off for you and leave it at the door. In doing this, lines like: ‘Everyone stick together, and be quiet’, shouted at the top of the speakers lungs, won’t sound so funny.

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    Ahh, The Relic. I remember seeing this in cinemas, and was first in line for the DVD when it came out – i thought Hyams did a great job on what is a B-grade storyline (and one that copies ideas from other, better films, and his use of shadow and natural lighting to film in was (at the time) astonishing. You’re right about Ms Miller, though. She’s okay, but no Ripley. My favourite moment is the bit with the guard smoking some pot in the john. Made me jump something fierce when I first saw it.

    The ending, while utterly unconvincing, still rocks in 5.1.

    Great review of a vastly underrated scare-flick!

  2. Avatar
    Sam Reply

    This is my go-to guilty pleasure film. Scores points for; Tom Sizemore, keeping the monster out of sight (budgetary reasons but works well) and setting pretty much the whole thing in a creepy museum. Love it.

  3. Avatar
    rtm Reply

    I remember only bits and pieces as I saw this a long time ago. Quite spooky at times but it’s no Alien… and Penelope is no Sigourney. Still, I thought it was a decent thriller, enough to get me terrified of being locked up in Chicago’s Natural History Museum. I’ve been there a couple of times, that place is huge!

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