A crate packed full of rue-covered leaves is transported to Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, based on the misguided whims of a researcher poking around a South American aboriginal tribe. The wooded crate's cracked open in museum's research wing, where Dr. Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller) takes an active interest in the content -- or the lack of contents, aside from these leaves and a mythical statue. On the other side of the city, investigator Vincent D'Agosta (Tom Sizemore) measures up a bizarre crime scene on a boat with gruelingly slaughtered shipmates, with evidence pointing towards the contents of the crates. As the detective brings his case to the museum, the doctor delves deeper into the mystery, and a special, high-dollar, black-tie exhibit around the topic of "superstition" approaches, something eerie begins to lurk the museum's hallways and, in conservatively scattered kills, snarls and slashes at the people inside.
That's The Relic, Peter Hyams' '80s-style creature feature based on the Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child novel of the same name, a paint-by-numbers, schlocky clone of the Alien cram-everyone-in-a-tight-space-and-kill-'em formula with computer-generated imagery pairing alongside Stan Winston's talented creature construction. Most, if not all, of the heady bureaucratic criticism from the novel has been plucked away, instead allowing Hyams to build a suspenseful horror mystery with one directive really in tow: to get a bunch of people crammed together and locked up in a museum, while a hungry beast thumps and throttles through its dark crevices in hunt of human hypothalamuses. It's a flick that sets out for blood in its second half, all while grasping onto a dash of mystery and a sense of humor, and has a hell of a lot of fun in doing so.
Hyams, though, has to muscle past a middling introduction -- extensively re-written in the script -- that doesn't really lure our attention in, instead dragging us along by a string. The talking points are amusing; mythical aboriginal beasts, genetic hybrids between geckos and beetles, heads being ripped off in bathroom stalls and an exhibit built around superstitious behavior while Sizemore's lead detective is, big shocker, highly superstitious. Yet it's still little more than hokey, second-rate genre mood in this context, tossed on the screen to bide our time until the beast begins making its rounds. To satisfy our little indulgences, sprite-like Linda Hunt of Kindergarten Cop slips funny one-liners in with Tom Sizemore's cheeky detective antics and Penelope Ann Miller's mousy bashfulness as the researcher, while James Whitmore from Shawshank Redemption squeaks in intermittently as a funny older gentleman who favors Dr. Green.
On cue, blood eventually begins to spill and the mystery picks up its slushy momentum behind the creature's hunt for human bodies, which lights just enough of a fire underneath The Relic to launch a respectable creature feature framework. A lot of the appeal generates from the setting, Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, and its potential for round-the-corner scare tactics. Weaving through the easily destroyable labs underneath the main floor and watching the beast dangle from the rooftops of high-pillared locations add to the alluring environment, while also adding a sense of uniqueness about the atmosphere. Something about watching these people's hypothalamuses get munched on in the confines of a natural history museum, a place that pays respect to the progression of organisms throughout time, is undeniably satisfying. Especially to this vicious extent.
The Relic, though aged by quite a few years, still impresses with its special effect rendering of the "Kothoga", a combination of master creator Stan Winston's eye for grotesque construction and post-Jurassic Park computer-generated imagery. Sure, looking back on the effects now isn't terribly flattering for the digital work, but they're still very mindfully handled and convincing when looked upon with forgiving eyes for the age. Watching the monster hop about with swords for teeth in the dark museum holds nearly as much clout as Bong Joon-ho's The Host in broad daylight, complete with a tongue-lapping scene involving Penelope Ann Miller and the beast that'll still get a few chills rolling. However, any of the truly effective creature moments hinge on Stan Winston's constructive work, which thrusts a slobbering, snarling quadruped right in our eyesight. The Kothoga's a pretty great beast, even if its look oozes with obvious '70s-'80s influences.
Hyams' flick certainly isn't perfect; much of the dialogue -- especially between any of the police officers -- grates on the nerves, the pacing's fairly sluggish throughout its 100-minute runtime, and the twist in the end leans on the support of eyeroll-worthy science that's simply tough to stomach. However, when The Relic starts tumbling towards the core of its bodycount-heavy brutality in the final reel, with plenty of blood spurts and head/torso removals in the dark corners of the museum, it becomes a quality slice of B-level, popcorn-munching Hollywood horror. No social motives lay underneath its build, no dire desire to work within the confines of legible science, nor any other urges to make it anything that it's not. We're talking about a pure, unadulterated collage of old-school creature features, planted in an dynamic environment rife with atmosphere and slick hiding spots for the monster. It's that simple: get everyone in a museum, unleash a beast, and relish in the sanguine chaos.
Video and Audio:
Lionsgate got off to a rocky start with their Blu-ray offerings, including the first-pressing of Stargate and others, but they're really taken off as of late -- hitting homeruns with their second-pressing of Stargate and their rendering of Requiem for a Dream. The Relic, framed at 2.35:1 within a 1080p AVC encode, carries on their recent string of Blu-ray successes with this decently robust and extremely film-like presentation. The print looks a bit harsh, with a few washed-out colors and quite a bit of dust / speckles to be seen, and the overall level of detail isn't a pinnacle of robustness through its slightly off-kilter haziness. However, the image remains distortion free and preserves film grain superbly, while also showcasing quite a few eye-popping details -- the drool oozing off Stan Winston's "Kothoga", wood grain and texture in the crates, and the overall level of contrast preservation in this mostly dark image.
The 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio track is a loud one, complete with room-thumping monster gallops and a robust scoring to add to the mood. Channel separation is extremely pleasing, launching effects from all angles to a persistent degree. Some of the front-heavy sound effects do fall a bit flatter than the widely-mixed arrangements, such as a few explosions that neglect to push from the front in a fashion I'd expect, but others manage to really shake and move. The musical arrangement rarely lets our nerves have a moment's break, carried over to a swelling degree here, while the dialogue remains surprisingly crisp and audible -- a shade better than expected, actually. It's mostly a well-balanced, thunderous track that'll really please fans of the flick -- as it matches the visual treatment with a lot of attitude. English, English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available with the 7.1 Master Audio track.
Audio Commentary with Peter Hyams:
Director Hyams has a blunt, sparse way of speaking about his filmmaking methods, revealing frank feelings about his inopportune moments with the American Museum of Natural History, his discussion about lenses and focus, and about the way he likes to shoot his films. It's reflected in the commentary's rhythm, which trots along with gaps of silence interrupted with insights about the techniques he used in his film. He quotes Carol Reed's philosophy on filmmaking, plucks out actors worth mentioning in scenes, and the necessity to not be "too unique". He even plays a bit of a game with those listening to count seconds during a specific sequence, showing that none of the cuts lasted longer than three seconds. The gaps in material are a little wide and his energy's very sober and low.
Also available on the disc are a ten-minute Interview with Peter Hyams (10:10, HD AVC), which shows that he reveals a bit more in content when he's given some direction in content to cover, and a Theatrical Trailer (2:15, SD MPEG-2).
Three factors play into this release of The Relic. For one, it's a '90s creature feature that packs a whole lot of schlocky B-movie fun in its moderately-budgeted construction, mixing blood 'n guts, humor, and a bold-faced excuse to cram people into a museum into a newly-fangled cult classic. Secondly, Lionsgate's Blu-ray looks decent and sounds really good, while bringing us a commentary and an interview with Peter Hyams for sound measure. And three, it's very moderately priced at $20 list -- certainly less through just about any venue. All that together makes this pure hunk of suspenseful sci-fi horror firmly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site