Relic: Peter Hyams’ Horror Thriller

Though based on an original, respected sci-fi novel, Peter Hyams’ new horror thriller, The Relic, comes across as a pastiche of the genre’s conventions, as evident in major pictures of the last two decades, most notably Jaws and the first two Alien movies. Still, this strikingly proficient production boasts genuinely scary thrills and first-rate visual and creature effects, as is expected of any film Gale Anne Hurd is supervising.

With Miramax’s Scream already out for weeks and not much competition in sight, Paramount release should do reasonably well domestically, with stronger prospects abroad, where there’s insatiable appetite for such distinctly American fare.

Made in the tradition of a Gothic, haunted house movie, The Relic doesn’t so much inject new blood into the increasingly tiresome horror mold (dominated by Wes Craven’s highschool nightmares), as “rearranges” some of the genre’s most prevalent characters and themes, including science versus myth and superstition, menacing wild beasts lurking in the dark, a bright female professional in peril, a rescue mission of civilians innocently entrapped in a confined space–and even cynical politicians primed for a comeuppance.

Pic’s premise and beginning are terrific. Following a ritual in which white anthropologist-explorer, John Whitney (Lewis Van Bergen) is given a potion by a primitive tribe, story shifts to a Brazilian port and a cargo ship that carries Whitney’s mysterious discoveries to Chicago’s Museum of Natural History.

When the shipment arrives, the museum’s research team is surprised to find mostly empty boxes except for large green leaves with orange spots on them that appear to be funguses. Dr. Margo Green (Penelope Anne Miller), an attractive evolutionary biologist, who had just lost a major grant to a male rival, refuses to obey orders and get rid of all of the leaves. Instead, she stubbornly begins an examination with her curioisty aroused by a peculiar incident, in which a beetle crawls into a box of leaves and emerges out of there as a giant insect.

After the first attack, in which a black guard is decapitated while smoking dope in the men’s room, friendly homicide detective Vincent D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) is brought to the scene of the crime. Museum director, Dr. Ann Cuthbert (Linda Hunt) is concerned that the gala for the new exhibit, to which Mayor Owen (Robert Lesser) and other city celebs and patrons are invited, might not take place as scheduled. Aping Jaws, where the dilemma was to keep or close the public beaches for swimming, here the issue is whether or not to hold the festive event. There’s no need to elaborate on D’Agosta’s decision and its consequences, for without these elements there won’t be a yarn to tell.

At the same time, the researchers begin to wonder whether the horrific creature, which shows both mammalian and reptilian qualities, could have evolved through some kind of a chemical DNA process. Enough clues are provided for savvy sci-fi fans to guess how Whitney and his Brazilian expedition are related to the puzzle, but this should not present a problem to most filmgoers who’ll be caught in the intriguing mystery and the wild creature’s vicious assaults, which always end in graphically gory decapitations with the brain missing from the heads.

Unfortunately, the adventure’s second part is weaker and more predictable since all the vital information had already been conveyed. Borrowing from movies such as The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and Die Hard, the central, overly long event here is the rescue of two dozens civilians, including the mayor and his elegant wife, who are entrapped in the museum. With its number shrinking, the group has to endure dark tunnels, icy cold water–and more attacks by the beast, which gets bigger and bigger.

Though lacking major stars, the ensemble of character actors and second bananas acquit themselves honorably in physically challenging tasks. Miller doesn’t have the stature of Sigourney Weaver or Geena Davis, to mention two recent action heroines, but she projects warmth and intelligence and acts credibly as a research scientist. Male viewers will get a kick out of the sexy black dress she’s wearing–the scene in which she drops her high-heel shoes and throws herself into the action is borderline camp. As the commonsensical, down-to-earth detective, Sizemore is commanding, indicating that he is ready to play leading men after a decade of supporting parts.

Subscribing to the philosophy that a film can never be too fast, helmer Hyams structures The Relic as a spiraling crescendo with a feverish tempo, seldom giving the audience a chance to breathe. Using Aliens (l986, which Hurd also produced) as a model, pic’s climax is one of the longest non-stop sequences ever filmed in a horror actioner.

Tech credits all contribute to the sense of fear and dread that permeate the film from the very first frame. It’s always a pleasure, even when the narrative sags or becomes too familiar, to observe the visual and creature effects, supervised by Gregory L. McMurray and Stan Winston, respectively. Hyams’ sharply alert camera is an active participant in the story, Philip Harrison’s design of the museum and its basement is resourcefully authentic and claustrophobic, and John Debney’s music and Gene S. Cantamessa’s sound achieve the kind of ominous effects that keep audiences at the edge of their seats for the duration of the ride.