January is so often seen as the dumping ground for films that studios have little confidence in, whether for awards or box office success. Unless the film is an Oscar byte or likely to be a summer blockbuster, they will be dropped in January. To be fair, there is at least some truth to that. It tends to be a season of low brow comedy, mediocre drama, and tepid romance. However, it can also be fertile ground for niche sci-fi and horror films willing to take the big swings. A good example of this is 1997 The Relicone of the great unsung creature traits to come Jurassic Park.
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film was such a hit that it’s a wonder more movies about dinosaurs and giant monsters weren’t released by the middle of the decade. There are of course exceptions – Anaconda, Deep Risingand Lake Placid come to mind – but considering the cultural phenomenon that was Jurassic Park, there are still relatively few. Admittedly, the main reason for this today is probably financial, since the practical and computer effects required to create such films were prohibitively expensive at the time; or at least to be done well. And let’s face it, nothing would come close to Spielberg’s epic.
Most of what was being shot at the time was extremely low budget or direct-to-video Tammy and the T Rex and which Roger Corman produces carnosaur movies. but The Relic is one of the few Creature features released by a major studio in the mid-’90s that feels like an answer (or a money grab, depending on how cynical you are). Jurassic Park Phenomenon.
The film is essentially a cross between the dark detective thrillers like seven popular at the time and a classic B-Monster movie. I don’t mean that negatively in any way. It’s by no means a cheap or shoddy film, but its plot could be straight out of the pulp of the 1950s. It’s got an exotic expedition, a hardened detective, a beautiful scientist, a wheelchair-bound elder sage, a creature based on myth, evolution, and pseudoscience, and plenty of dark passages and corridors to hide in. These are all staples of the golden age of science fiction and The Relic brings them into the ’90s with interesting new variations and style.
The entire film is supported by a very strong cast led by Tom Sizemore as Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta and Penelope Ann Miller As evolutionary biologist Dr. Margo Green. Although these two actors regularly played supporting roles in the ’90s, The Relic is a rare starring role in each of her resumes. Sizemore, in particular, was a very reliable character actor throughout the decade. Unfortunately, addiction and other personal demons derailed his career as if it really could have taken off. The Relic but is ultimately an ensemble film and spends a lot of time with multiple characters. Among the most memorable Linda Hunt as dr. Cuthbert, the director of the Field Museum of Natural History, where most of the film is set, James Whitmore as its curator Dr. dress and Clayton Rohner as D’Agosta’s partner Detective Hollingsworth.
Each of these characters, as well as a few others, are given their moments to shine. Because they are generally well written and acted by such skilled actors, we as viewers feel the film’s stakes much more. It would be a stretch to call them intricate or three-dimensional figures, but they are more than sea cardboard figures destined to be killed. Even the briefly seen John Whitney (Lewis Van Bergen) is a carefully drawn character who lends weight to certain scenes in the film. One of my favorite supporting characters is the medical examiner Dr. Mathilde Zwiezic (Audra Lindley), which proves the old adage that there are no small things in her brief scene and delivers one of the most memorable performances of the entire film.
Of course, the real star of any creature feature is the monster itself, and The Relic has a great.
The Kothoga is a mythical chimera, a mixture of lizard, insect and another aspect that I don’t want to spoil for those who haven’t seen the film yet. It grows in size throughout the film and develops rapidly while feeding the hormones from the human hypothalamus. It’s a unique creature in horror and creatively executed. As with many monsters in the post-Jurassic Park Era, the Kothoga is a handy effect that is enhanced with computer-generated effects. Unlike much of the CGI of the era, the effects of The Relic generally hold up, at least until the incendiary effects at the end, which have progressed very far over the past twenty-five years. The practical creature was designed, manufactured and operated by the legend Stan Winston and his team. While it doesn’t have the iconic status of other Winston designs, like the Terminator Endoskeleton, the Xenomorph Queen, or even Pumpkinhead, perhaps it should be. It’s an awesome looking monster with a memorable method of taking down its prey and some surprising abilities unique to giant monster movies.
The reason it has not attained this status may be because the kothoga itself is used sparingly and is often largely obscured by obscurity. This was likely both for technical reasons and to fit the look and feel of the film as a whole. director Peter Hyams, one of our more reliable and enduring journeyman directors since the 1970s, builds a lot of suspense by taking advantage of the darkness of the museum’s underground passages and passageways. Confidence in suspense and mystery is among the greatest strengths of The Relic. The sequences in which Detective Hollingsworth guides the wealthy visitors to the museum’s fundraising gala through the Kothoga’s underground cavern are among the film’s best. Hyams also expertly slices from place to place with ease, building parallel tensions like the discoveries of Dr. Green or Lt. D’Agosta in one place get paid off in another.
Although it relies largely on suspense, the film doesn’t skimp on blood either. Finally, the story builds on a creature that chops off the heads of its victims with its mandibles, literally sucking their brains out. The blood may well have been one of the reasons the film was released in January rather than the more family-friendly summer season. The bloodshed is never really overdone, but it’s certainly strong enough to justify the film’s R rating.
It’s safe to say that the mid-’90s were lean years for horror fans. That’s not to say that horror movies weren’t made, but few made a lasting impression, either at the box office or with fans of the genre. That all changed in late 1996 with the release of Scream. The Relic was sort of drawn into the cyclone of that revolution as it happened. Although it opened as number one in January 1997, it ultimately only made up a little over half of its budget. Horror should change fast, and big budget creature features (Lake Placid regardless) were not part of this new direction for the time being. The further failure of godzilla the following year along with the massive success of The Blair Witch Projectwith its unprecedented profit-to-budget ratio, this has only solidified.
Despite the fact that it got lost in the mess of these massive horror shifts, The Relic is a film worth unearthing. It revels in the gritty realism of the ’90s while also being a terrific throwback to a bygone era of horror storytelling. It delights in its own absurdities, but does so with a serious expression. He never makes fun of his characters or even situations, but he also knows exactly what kind of film it is about. Ultimately, it’s a skillfully crafted action thriller with a cool monster, and that makes for some fantastic romp. A great, bloody, fast-paced, often funny and exciting time in the cinema. It might not be a film with deep contemplative themes or emotional weight, but it’s definitely a heck of a lot of fun. In our current time, where we are constantly bombarded with despair and trauma, both in daily life and on screen, there is a lot to be said for it.