Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Relic

The late-great Stan Winston was responsible for some of the most memorable monsters in modern cinema: the endoskeleton robotic killing machine in The Terminator (1984), the ferocious Queen Alien in Aliens (1986), the alien that hunts Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator (1987), and, of course, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993). I don’t know where the Kothoga from The Relic (1997) fits in the pantheon of Winston’s creatures but it is one of my favorites of his creations. Based on the best-selling horror novel of the same name by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, The Relic was a modest hit at the box office and predictably received mixed reviews by critics but remains one of my favorite creature features. Peter Hyams’ film has no other ambitions other than to tell an entertaining, things-go-bump-in-the-night story and does so in refreshingly no-nonsense fashion.

A ship arriving from Brazil is stopped by the Coast Guard in Lake Michigan and they find out that everybody on board has been killed. This doesn’t sit too well with Chicago police detective Vincent D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) who has been put in charge of the investigation. Meanwhile, at the Museum of Natural History in Chicago, evolutionary biologist Dr. Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller) is trying desperately to get a grant so that she and her team can continue their work. However, a co-worker (Chi Moui Lo) is doing his best to steal her grant away to fund his own work. They both get a chance to impress a crowd of the city’s wealthiest patrons at the gala premiere of a new exhibit. As luck would have it, D’Agosta will also be attending as he investigates a gruesome murder that occurred at the museum the night before. Could it be an ancient creature known as the Kothoga which, legend has it, is the offspring of South America’s answer to Satan? It seems that it was in one of the crates on the ship from Brazil and has now decided to snack on some bluebloods during the gala. It’s up to D’Agosta and Green to stop this creature.

Tom Sizemore brings a solid, matter-of-fact vibe to his character that feels like he carried it over from his role in Heat (1995). D’Agosta isn’t some wisecracking cop trying to make the moves on Penelope Ann Miller’s cute biologist. He’s interested only in solving the murder. However, he does have one distinctive trait: he’s superstitious. Sizemore manages to insert it here and there throughout the film without belaboring it to the point of being painfully obvious. I like that he gives D’Agosta a genuinely inquisitive nature. He’s not some burn out or a stereotypical loose cannon but a guy good at his job. He’s also savvy enough to realize that the murder at the museum hasn’t been done by your garden variety psycho and doesn’t let anybody, not some jerk rent-a-cop or even the condescending mayor of the city, distract him from his investigation.

Sizemore enjoyed a good run in the 1990s, appearing in films like Natural Born Killers (1994), Heat, and Saving Private Ryan (1998) before a myriad of personal problems burned a lot of bridges in Hollywood and relegated him to direct-to-video hell. He’s quite good in The Relic, his first leading man role and the cheap shots by critics back in the day that blasted him as resembling an overweight George Clooney were unfair. Sizemore certainly has the presence and the intensity to be a credible leading man and his blunt cop anticipates a similar one he played in the short-lived television show, Robbery Homicide Division. He was attracted to The Relic because he finally got to play the male lead in a film: “I had the responsibility of pushing the narrative forward.”

Penelope Ann Miller is just fine as the plucky heroine and thanks to action producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator, Aliens) Margo Green is smart and proactive. She’s no damsel in distress and is actually quite resourceful, which is a refreshing change in a film like this one. It is nice to see characters using their intelligence in a horror film. For example, at one point D’Agosta takes Green to her lab so that she can figure out what the creature is and how to stop it. He opens up a little bit and tells her why he’s so superstitious. It’s a brief scene but it gives us some good insight into these characters. In the ‘90s, Miller made a significant push to be regarded as an A-list leading actress in high profile studio films like Awakenings (1990), Carlito’s Way (1993), The Shadow (1994), and The Relic, but none of them set the world on fire in terms of box office and she never became much of a critic’s darling either. I always found her kind of annoying and often miscast (see Carlito’s Way) with the notable exception of The Freshman (1990) in which she was perfect as Marlon Brando’s spoiled daughter. Before The Relic, Miller had not done a horror film but was drawn to director Peter Hyams’ desire to have a strong and smart female lead.

Hyams does a decent job establishing The Relic’s premise and introducing the characters, all the while building towards the climax: gala night at the museum with the creature on the rampage. He cuts between the guests trying to escape the museum while D’Agosta and Green attempt to stop the monster. Journeyman director Hyams epitomizes meat and potatoes filmmaking with his straightforward camerawork devoid of any distinctive style. Guillermo Del Toro he is not but that’s okay. Hyams keeps things moving along while plugging in the requisite jolts at certain moments throughout the film. Once the power goes out in the museum, he uses the darkness to tease us with glimpses of the creature until the full reveal during the final showdown. If I had one complaint it is that he relies too much on the dark and sometimes it is hard to tell what is happening.

Also of note is the solid supporting cast including Linda Hunt as the pragmatic director of the museum and James Whitmore as Green’s kindly old colleague and mentor. Genre veteran Clayton Rohner (G vs E) has a nice role as the junior detective working with D’Agosta. He’s put in charge of taking the mayor and a few others to safety. It’s not a flashy role but he does the best with what he’s given.

The original novel was written by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston, an ex-journalist and former public relations director for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Because their book portrayed the museum’s administration in an unflattering light, they turned down the film’s producers’ request to film there. Paramount Pictures, the studio backing the production, even approached the museum and offered them a seven figure amount to film there but ultimately the administration was worried that a monster movie would scare kids away from the museum. So, the filmmakers were faced with a problem as only museums in Chicago and Washington, D.C. resembled the one in New York. Fortunately, the Field Museum in Chicago loved the film’s premise and allowed the production to shoot there. In addition to shooting on location in Chicago, a set was built in Los Angeles of a tunnel flooded with water for a sequence later on in the film. Sizemore and many of the cast spent most of the shoot either damp, cold or soaking wet. He caught the flu twice and the production shut down briefly when Hyams became too sick to work.

Hyams reviewed makeup artist Stan Winston’s early drawings of the Kothoga and his only suggestion was to make the monster more hideous looking. The director suggested certain invertebrates for inspiration and Winston came up with an arachnoid outline for the creature’s face. He and his team made three creatures with two people moving the heads and people on the side working the electronics to move the arms, claws, mouth, and so on. In the scenes where the creature is running or jumping, a computer-generated version was used.

Film critics of the day gave The Relic negative to mixed reviews. In his review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington wrote, “the DNA speculation that supposedly fuels the plot feels right out of Beavis and Butt-head.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C+” rating and wrote, “If you can stagger around the plot holes (how'd a Brazilian cargo ship with a dead crew get to Lake Michigan?), the last 30 minutes are pure, dumb monster-movie fun.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Geoff Pevere wrote, “The movie is a shameless cut-and-paste of a half-century of bogeyman-movie clichés.” USA Today gave the film two out of four stars and Susan Wloszczyna wrote, “amid caviar-quality Oscar contenders, it’s a palate cleanser – if you have a taste for explicit decapitations and loopy macabre humor.” However, Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “All of this is actually a lot of fun, if you like special effects and gore. To see this movie in the same week as the hapless and witless Turbulence is to understand how craft and professionalism can let us identify with one thriller heroine and laugh at another.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Yes, we've seen it all before. But The Relic proves that the hoariest clichés, when stirred together with enough money, shaken vigorously and artfully lighted, can still make the adrenaline surge.”

Ultimately, The Relic is barely a notch above the cheesy creature feature films that popular the SyFy Channel but so what? The dialogue at times is kinda clunky and most of the characters never go beyond their stereotypes but that’s what you get when you have four screenwriters credited with writing the damn thing. That being said, the film is relatively devoid of narrative fat, which I like, Stan Winston’s monster looks pretty cool, there’s decapitations a-go-go for the gorehounds, Sizemore plays a gruff, superstitious cop, and Miller’s pretty scientist gets to kick ass. The Relic is a well-oiled thrill machine that delivers on its promise of providing a rollercoaster ride. What more do you want from this kind of film?


Cohen, David S. “Locked in Realm of Monstrous Terror.” South China Morning Post. March 16, 1997.

Slotek, Jim. “They Created a Monster.” Toronto Sun. January 12, 1997.

Williams, Sue. “Actor Immerses Himself in the Part.” The Australian. May 1, 1997.


  1. Ultimately, The Relic is barely a notch above the cheesy creature feature films that popular the SyFy Channel but so what?

    I feel the same way. I initially saw this film during its theatrical run, and it's a lot of fun to watch on the big screen--the visuals and, as you noted, the FX are particularly good.

    I also agree that Sizemore's good as weil. I peeked at his actor credits for the 90s, and I agree it's an impressive set of credentials.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading this review, J.D., as I enjoy reading all of your work. Looking forward to more of your work and J.C. week, especially. Take care.

  2. I remember seeing this one in theaters and being really entertained by it.

    Its interesting to note how both of this films major stars have disappeared! Tom Sizemore messed things up for himself, but Spheeris simply vanished. I liked her in The Shadow.

    This is a fun monster movie, I remember one scene where the monster chomps one security guard in half....grizzly stuff at times!

  3. Typically comprehensive treatment here. I'm not a huge fan, but agree it's a well-oiled roller coaster ride, that delivered what he set out to do. Grizzly moments for sure.

  4. I too enjoyed The Relic when I saw it: Hyams' stand-out capacity as a director is creating a tingly, tense atmosphere, and he certainly did that with this film. But the mannered cinematography was a real drag and this stuck in my mind as one of the most intense early examples of that current tendency in Hollywood to edit, light, and frame things so that the action's almost incoherent. Still, that bit where the monster licks Miller is hilariously cheesy perversity.

  5. Not exactly Hyam's magnum opus (hard to find one in a troubled filmography littered with clunkers and/or cult hits. . .though I do like End of Days and 2010) but an excellent film all the same. I almost forgot about it though until this popped up! Thanks. . .going to give it a Blu-Ray rewatch and maybe even post my own review.

  6. I love this movie! One of my favorite horror films of the '90s. At the time of its release, horror was caught up in the post-Scream slasher wave and although I didn't have any special animosity towards those films, it was a breath of fresh air to have a full-on monster movie in theaters. Deep Rising was another film from around the same time that scratched that same itch but as creature features go, I give The Relic a bigger thumbs-up.

  7. The book this is based upon, by Preston and Child, was an solid example of the latter techno-thrillers from the 90's. While the film adaptation strips away some characters (especially Special Agent Pendergast) and plenty of the details, THE RELIC was a very decent, entertaining monster flick. Like you, I still enjoy watching the damn thing.

    I'm in complete agreement with you in regard to Tom Sizemore (and it is a pity that his personal problems derailed the great potential he had on display during the 90's). He reminds me a lot of William Forsythe with the same kind power and versatility of his portrayals (well, when he was still working, at least). I contrast his DeWitt Albright (DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS) to his Lt. D'Agosta (here) and am amazed it's the same guy.

    As always, another great film examination, J.D. Thanks for this.

  8. Hans A.:

    Ah, that's so cool you saw this in theaters. I really wish I had had the chance to see it on the big screen but didn't discover it 'till video.

    Thanks for the compliments and encouragement!

    The Film Connoisseur:

    Yeah, it is interesting how both Sizemore and Miller have failed to remain A-listers since this film but it is very hard to maintain that level for a long period like say Tom Cruise.

    And yeah, some of the gore effects were pretty gnarly, esp. the one you mentioned. I always thought that was pretty impressive for a mainstream studio film.

    Sam Juliano:

    Thanks for stopping by, Sam! Yeah, THE RELIC isn't going to redefine cinema but for what it is, it's just fine.

    Roderick Heath:

    "But the mannered cinematography was a real drag and this stuck in my mind as one of the most intense early examples of that current tendency in Hollywood to edit, light, and frame things so that the action's almost incoherent."

    Exactly! I wonder if this at times dimly-lit movie will look better on Blu-ray? I haven't read any reviews but one would hope the clarity of image will have improved.


    Hyams' magnum opus... yeah, that is a head scratcher for sure. I like a few of his films but I don't think I would ever call myself a fan of his work. As you point out, he's too inconsistent but I certainly dug this one.

    I would really like to read your thoughts on this film.

    Jeff Allard:

    You make a good point about THE RELIC going against the tide of SCREAM-type films that were all the rage in the 1990s. It was refreshing to see a good ol' fashioned monster movie. Nice to see that you're a fan of this film as well.


    Thanks for the scoop on the book. I have to say, after watching this film more than a few times I am really curious to read the book (and its sequel) as it sounds quite good, an engaging page turner.

    Good comparison with Sizemore and Forsythe. You're right, they both get a lot of mileage out of playing tough guys in films alto, personally I'd give Forsythe the edge. He is so entertaining to watch and a bit more consistent than Sizemore.

    As always, thanks for stopping by and for the kind words, my friend!

  9. J.D.
    My heart jumped with excitement over your choice of The Relic. I've seen the film a few times, loved reading your review and look forward to commenting on your selection.

    1. LOVE STAN WINSTON. AMEN! You are right there. His self-Directed feature Pumpkinhead with Lance Henriksen spotlighted another one of his incredible creations. Winston, in my opinon, was the best. Like you, I rank the Kothoga creature in The Relic in his top 5. I'm glad the CGI was only minimally employed.

    2. Now about the film. I agree. It's a streamlined, focused, little horror film with some splendid performances to keep things interesting. Hyams delivered one of his better films in years with The Relic eventhough I agree with you that it isn't an earth-shattering classic by any stretch. It is a film you can always return to for a good, old-fashioned monster scare.

    When you think about it, how many films are there like this one? It's a rare thing nowadays.

    3. The cast is excellent. I really enjoy Tom Sizemore's work and I enjoy him a whole lot more than George Clooney myself. He always adds something to the mix because he's such a presence on the screen. Heat, as you mentioned, and Black Hawk Down and SPR were terrific roles. I've always enjoyed Miller, probably more than you. But I did think The Freshman was perfect with her in it, but you're right she's never quite taken off, which leads me to Hyams...

    4. About the Director: He's had a good career, but a strange one, kind of uneven really. You could almost argue his movie is completely B grade and The Relic ranks as one of his finest moments. It definitely ranks as one of my favorites from Hyams. Outland is in the mix perhaps. I think your adjective of Hyams as a journeyman is spot on.

    You mail my biggest complaint with the film. I do love the reveal of the creature, but would have preferred a little more lighting to highlight that Winston creation. Hyams fails a touch there. It is just too damn dark in points and that's partially where the film is harmed. I agree completely. You really want to throw some green lighting in the mix or something odd like that from time to time. Hyams definitely plays this monster show as straight up, gritty and real. Perhaps he wanted to avoid comic book style lighting.

    As far as those criticisms, how does Beavis and Butthead even enter into a guy's review. As they would say, "idiot!" It's not a perfect movie, but for a little monster movie, it's pretty damn entertaining and only "artfully lighted" in points.

    My only divergence from your summation would be that I do think it is a few notches better than a Sy Fy film. Perhaps it was Winston and the cast who allowed that to happen, but I don't mind spending my time with a film like this, while I simply avoid all film on Sy Fy.

    Loved your visit of The Relic. Thank you J.D. for the thoughtful look on it.

  10. Oh and Hyams did that disappointingly dreadful A Sound Of Thunder. What dreck! I gave that a chance hoping for something on par with The Relic, but that was more like a Sy Fy movie with dreadful special effects. How they managed to land Ben Kingsley is a strange turn of events I'm sure.

  11. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Wow! What an amazing bunch of comments/observations! Let see...

    1. Stan is THE Man, no doubt about that. His work speaks for itself. I really loved his work on the first PUMPKINHEAD film as well. Kind of an underrated film I always thought.

    2. "When you think about it, how many films are there like this one? It's a rare thing nowadays."

    It sure is. I think that's why I still come back to this one. I could really see Guillermo Del Toro filling this void. He seems to love bringing monsters to the big screen and I have high hopes for his Lovecraft film.

    3. I agree with you completely about Sizemore, alto, if push comes to shove I do like Clooney more. I think he has a more diverse output. As for Miller, I dunno.. she just doesn't do anything for me but I did think she was excellent in THE FRESHMAN.

    4. You are right on the nose about Hyams and his uneven career. He definitely is of B movie caliber, no disputing that. I quite like OUTLAND too and would maybe rank it just after THE RELIC.

    And I agree about the lack of lighting, esp. as it pertains to the creature. Now, I'm all for maintaining some mystery but at some point you want to have a big reveal of the creature and with all the money I'm sure they spent on it, you would think Hyams' would have shed more light on it. It's kind of insulting to all the hard work Winston and his team put into it!

    Maybe my SyFy comment was a tad harsh. THE RELIC is certainly light years better than most of the original stuff that appears on there.

    I'm not a big fan of A SOUND OF THUNDER either. I can't stand Ed Burns for starters but I'm not surprised by Kingsley's appearance. This was the guy who also popped up as the baddie in BLOODRAYNE by Uwe Boll! So, I think he goes where the paycheck takes him.

    Thanks again for your wonderful comments and the kind words.

  12. Agreed J.D.. Boy, they really needed to show off that Kothoga. Insulting is a good way to put it. I love Guillermo- one of the few working with nifty creature effects....not CGI!

    Not a fan of Ed Burns.....awful. But you're right about Kingsley. He'll go where the money is and do the superior stuff. He's a bit for sale that way. Remember, he did that Jonathan Frakes Thunderbirds' disaster.

    You're doing amazing stuff.

  13. It does remind me of something the SyFy Channel would show, but that's okay by me. I still enjoyed it.

  14. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Yes, I love that Del Toro is a fan of practical effects over CGI and only uses it to complement the physical, tangible stuff.


    Thanks for stopping by and good to see that you're also a fan of this film.

  15. J.D. A great post on a very fun monster movie. I also find a lot of enjoyment in movies that do a great job of entertaining, and this one does a great job with suspense and atmosphere. Add to that, I just LOVE monster movies.

    The novel is even better than the movie but that didn't take away from my viewing enjoyment. Love it when creepy things are growing in the lab. Love the plucky scientist. I always like Sizemore and it's too bad he's faded into the background.

  16. Hokahey:

    Yeah, I'm always down for a good monster movie as well and this one certainly delivers.

    Thanks for the insight into the book. That cliches it - I really need to check it out, now.

  17. Sci-Fi Fanatic - Re: your comment about A Sound of Thunder. I believe they pulled the plug on that movie before the special effects were completely rendered. (And it may have gone straight to DVD.) Note the Tyrannosaurus rex that looks like a little cutout. Some of the other special effects are more completely rendered - like the baboon-type creatures that hang upside down like bats. I thought they were creepy - and there are other creepy atmospheric moments. I have to say that despite the dreck you note, I enjoyed elements of this film. I liked how time transformed the city. Still, too bad they did a poor job of a classic Ray Bradbury short story.

  18. Hokahey
    I can't tell you how disappointed I was when I saw the film. As you mentioned, it's Ray Bradbury! It deserved alot, alot better.

    The ideas and concepts were excellent. The execution was just horrendous. A btter special effects plugged version would have helped. Cheers.

  19. I've always enjoyed The Relic. It doesn't try to be anything more than it needs to be - creopy corridors, a few screams, nice special-effects, lights that don't work, jump-out-of-your-seat moments and the lovely Penelope Ann Miller.

  20. Dan:

    I couldn't agree more. It does the job and is an entertaining monster movie.

  21. Hello, I'm starting a podcast and read this review. Loved it and am now a subscriber! I would like to use a quote from this review regarding this movie, citing your blog. Is there a way to contact you?