Sometimes, nothing warms my cockles more than a good, old fashioned monster movie, and in the dying years of the 20th century I guess a bunch of movie studios thought the same thing – because in the wake of all the toothy shenanigans of Jurassic Park and the rise in popularity in CGI, state of the art creature features were the order of the day.
Aside from the influx of giant, killer animal movies like Deep Blue Sea, Lake Placid and Anaconda, we also had Treat Williams fighting a giant, mutant octopus in Deep Rising, Mira Sorvino fighting giant mutant bugs in Mimic and the less said about the 90’s version of Godzilla the better.
However, possibly the most old school of these titles took the tried and true plot tropes of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, bunged it all into a museum setting and possibly gave us one of cinema’s more underrated beasties in Peter Hyam’s The Relic.
The Natural History Museum of Chicago is building up to a brand new exhibit concerning superstition throughout human history and everyone’s hoping that it’ll make a lot of money – however, maybe the powers that be shouldn’t break out the canapes just yet as the extreme mutilation of a night watchman suggests that there’s a maniac hiding in the premises. Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta immediately wants to close the beaches – uh, I mean shut the museum, but strong opposition from the head of security, plus some rather unsubtle pressuring from the mayor thwarts him from doing what he must to protect the people from what ever chopped the heads off and ripped up the brains of not just the security guard, but also an entire crew of a cargo ship that came over to Chicago from South America.
Meanwhile, evolutionary biologist Margo Green is trying to beat a slippery co-worker from getting the research grant she desperately needs to continue her work, but her attention is snagged by some crates that were delivered by anthropologist John Whitney from – you guessed it – South America, that only seem to contain an idol of a strange looking mythical creature known as the “Kothoga” and a bunch of leaves covered in a weird fungus and starts analysing what it all could possibly mean.
We know what it all means, however and it all adds up to the indisputable fact that Kothoga is not only real and stalking the corridors of the museum at night, looking for the closest substitute to the leaf fungus it can for nourishment (the human hypothalamus, in case you were wondering), but the upcoming opening night of the glitzy exhibition opening will no doubt prove to be an irresistible buffet to a hefty predator that seems to be made up of all the most lethal parts of other animals. Can Margo and D’Agosta put all the pieces together before the majority of Chicago’s wealthy hoi polloi get to mingle with a super charged murder-beast?
It becomes rather obvious quite early on that The Relic has absolutely no interest in re-inventing the wheel – in fact, it clearly likes the wheel just the way it is, thank you very much – and thus borrows liberally from the book of Jaws by throwing in red herrings, greedy people in authority and a put upon cop trying like hell to stop people getting eaten – however, as oddly soothing as it all is, it mostly means that the Relic is something you no doubt seen before. Or at least it’s something you’re trying to see if you’ve seen it before; because Hyams keeps the cinematography in some shots so dark, I’ve no doubt you could develop film on set without any fear of screwing it up. Yes, monster movies of times past (e.g. Alien and, yes, Jaws again) have taught us to keep your creature hidden for maximum scariness, but sometimes it feels like you need fucking sonar to discern what the hell is happening in some scenes and more often than not it gets a little frustrating.
It’s a shame, because if the film maybe took one or two more original ideas from the source novel (by Lincoln Preston and Douglas Child) and brought the lights up a smidge, The Relic possibly could have been a minor monster classic. Still, there’s lots here left to love and the script gives everyone peppy one liners and witty repartee (even though it feels like every character in the film employs the same gag writer) which are given out with aplomb by a stunningly healthy looking Tom Sizemore and a spunky Penelope Ann Miller.
The film paints these guys (plus Linda Hunt and James Whitmore) as genuinely likable archetypes – even Sizemore – and the film low key plays up the mystery of the case by leaning into the forensic nature of the novel as all the separate facts conclusively come together to point to a big honking monster doing the heinous deeds. From the on the movie is almost Die Hard-like as the survivors do what they can to get the mayor and his rich buddies out of the sealed museum through gushing sprinklers and murky sewers withour their brains being torn out of their heads by a roaring, bear-sized, reptile thingamajig.
Ah yes, the real star of the show. Massively and unfairly underrated in the pantheon of big screen movie monsters, the mythical beast made flesh known as Kothoga (Mbwum in the book) is fucking beautiful to behold – if the murky cinematography allowed you to get a good look at it, that is – and is a magnificent chimera made up of lots of other animals to make a lethal serving of predator-gumbo. Boasting the skin of a lizard, the mouth and pincers of a spider, the build and claws of a tiger and a nifty mohawk that really ties the design together, it’s a beast concocted by the boffins who work for effects legend Stan Winston and it’s truly worthy to stand alongside other creatures such as the Alien Queen and the American Werewolf In London. The fucker’s versatile too, able to glide underwater like a crocodile, charge like a bull and even scale a wall like a cat climbing the wallpaper in order to snip a screaming SWAT guy in half with its mandibles, but the continuing mystery as to how it even exists – a point that’s of prime importance in the book – is sort of dealt with almost a little dismissively by the film and the final twist (Kothoga wasn’t brought or lured her by John Whitney, it is John Whitney) doesn’t have the resonance it should because everything is literally exploding by this point.
Still, as monster movies go, The Relic my be a tad workman-like in it’s execution, but it’s got a great location and is dependable enough to still scratch the itch of anyone seeking to get their thrills via rending claws, crunching teeth and a creature design that simply fucking rules.