Though based on an original, quite respected sci-fi novel, Peter Hyams’ new horror thriller, “The Relic,” comes across as a pastiche of genre conventions from 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. With “Scream” already out for three weeks and no other direct competition in sight, Paramount release should do reasonably well domestically, with stronger prospects abroad.
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 as “rearrange” some of the genre’s most familiar characters and themes, including science vs. myth and superstition, wild beasts lurking in the dark, a bright female professional in peril, a rescue mission of civilians 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 boxes that are mostly empty, except for large green leaves with orange spots on them that appear to be fungi.
Dr. Margo Green (Penelope Anne Miller), an evolutionary biologist who has just lost a major grant to a male rival, refuses to obey orders and destroy all the leaves. Instead, she stubbornly begins an investigation, her curiosity aroused by a peculiar incident in which a beetle crawls into a box of the leaves and emerges 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) arrives at 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,” in which the dilemma was whether to close public beaches, here the issue is whether to hold the festive event.
At the same time, the researchers begin to wonder whether the horrific former beetle, which shows both mammalian and reptilian qualities, could have evolved through some process involving DNA. 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 up in the intriguing mystery and the wild creature’s vicious assaults, which always end in graphically gory decapitations, the head emptied of its brain.
Unfortunately, with all the vital information already conveyed, the adventure’s second part is weaker and more predictable. 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 dozen civilians, including the mayor and his elegant wife, who are trapped 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 acquits itself honorably in physically challenging tasks. Miller 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,” produced by present co-producer Gale Anne Hurd, as a model, pic’s climax is one of the longest nonstop sequences ever filmed in a horror actioner.
Tech credits all strongly contribute to the sense of fear and dread that permeates 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.