January is so often seen as a dumping ground for films that studios have little faith in, whether for awards or box office success. If a movie isn’t Oscar bait or likely to be a summer blockbuster, January is when it’s dropped. To be fair, there’s at least some truth to that. This is generally a season of “low-key” comedies, mediocre dramas and lukewarm romances. That said, it can also be fertile ground for niche sci-fi and horror films that are ready to take big swings. A good example of this is that of 1997 The relicone of the great characteristics of the unsung creatures to come in the wake of jurassic park.
Steven Spielberg’s film was so successful in 1993 that it’s a wonder there weren’t more dinosaur and giant monster movies released by the middle of the decade. There are of course exceptions to this – Anaconda, Deep Risingand Lake Placid come to mind – but given the cultural phenomenon that has been jurassic park, it is still relatively little. Admittedly, the main reason for this is most likely financial, as the practical and computational effects needed to create such films were prohibitively expensive at the time; or at least to be well done. And let’s face it, nothing was going to be able to compete with Spielberg’s epic.
Most of what was made in this era was very low budget or straight to video footage like Tammy and the T-Rex and the Roger Corman produced carnosaurus movies. Corn The relic is one of the few mid-90s creature features released by a major studio that feels like a response (or a cash grab depending on how cynical you are) to the jurassic park phenomenon.
The film is essentially a cross between gritty crime thrillers like Seven popular at the time, and a classic B-monster movie. I don’t mean it’s negative in any way. It’s not a cheap or shoddy movie by any means, but its plot could have been pulled straight from the pulps of the 1950s. It has an exotic expedition, a tough detective, a handsome scientist, an older armchair sage rolling, a creature based on myth, evolution and pseudo-science, and many dark passages and corridors in which he can hide. are all staples of the golden age of science fiction and The relic brings them into the 90s with some interesting new variations and style.
The whole film is backed by a very solid 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 throughout the 90s, The relic is a rare starring role on each of their resumes. Sizemore in particular was a very reliable character actor throughout the decade. Unfortunately, addiction and other personal demons derailed her career just as it could have really taken off. The relic is ultimately an ensemble film, however, and spends a lot of time with multiple characters. Among the most memorable are Linda Hunt as Dr. Cuthbert, the director of the Field Museum of Natural History where most of the film takes place, James Whitmore as curator, Dr. Frock, and Clayton Rohner as D’Agosta’s partner, Detective Hollingsworth.
Each of these characters as well as several others have their moments to shine. Because they are generally well written and acted by such talented performers, we as the audience feel the stakes of the film much more. It would be an overstatement to call them complicated or three-dimensional characters, but they’re more than just cardboard cutouts designed to be killed. Even the only briefly seen John Whitney (Lewis Van Bergen) is a well-drawn character that lends weight to certain scenes in the film. One of my favorite supporting characters is Coroner Dr Matilda Zwiezic (Audra Lindley), who in his brief scene proves the old adage that there are no small roles 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 big one.
The Kothoga is a mythical chimera, a mixture of lizard, insect, and one more aspect that I won’t reveal for those who haven’t seen the film yet. It grows larger throughout the film and evolves rapidly, while feeding on hormones taken 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 practical effect augmented by computer-generated effects. Unlike most CGI of the time, the effects of The relic generally hold up, at least until the fire effects at the end, which have come a long way in twenty-five years. The practical creature was designed, manufactured and operated by the legendary Stan Winston and his team. While it doesn’t have the iconic status of other Winston designs like the Terminator Endoskeleton, Xenomorph Queen, or even Pumpkinhead, maybe it should. It’s a fantastic monster with a memorable method of dispatching its prey and some surprising abilities unique to giant monster movies.
The reason it hasn’t achieved that kind of status may be because the Kothoga itself is used sparingly and is often largely hidden in darkness. It was probably both for technical reasons and to fit the look of the movie as a whole. Director Peter Hyam, one of our most reliable and consistent fellow directors since the 1970s, creates plenty of suspense using the darkness of the museum’s underground tunnels and corridors. The use of suspense and mystery are among the greatest strengths of The relic. The sequences in which Detective Hollingsworth leads the wealthy attendees of the museum’s fundraising gala through the Kothoga’s underground lair are among the film’s best. Hyams also cuts deftly from place to place with ease, building parallel tension as Dr. Green’s or Lt. D’Agosta’s discoveries in one place pay off in another.
While it relies heavily on suspense, the film doesn’t skimp on the gore either. After all, the story is built on a creature that decapitates its victims with its mandibles and literally sucks out their brains. The gore might just be one of the reasons the film was released in January rather than the more family-friendly summer season. The bloodshed is never exactly overdone, but it’s certainly strong enough to warrant the film’s R rating.
It’s safe to say that the mid-’90s was a lean year for horror fans. That’s not to say horror movies weren’t made, but few have had a lasting impact at the box office or on genre fans. Everything changed at the end of 1996 with the release of Yell. The relic was somehow caught in the cyclone of this revolution as it was happening. Although it opened at number one in January 1997, it ultimately only recouped just over half of its budget. Horror was about to change rapidly, and the features of big budget creatures (Lake Placid notwithstanding) were not part of this new direction at this time. The further failure of Godzilla the following year with the massive success of The Blair Witch Projectwith its unprecedented profit-to-budget ratio, only solidified that.
Despite being lost in the mix of these massive shifts in horror, The relic is a film to dig up. It both revels in the gritty realism of the 90s while also being a terrific throwback to a bygone era of horror storytelling. He delights in his own nonsense but does so with a straight face. He never ridicules his characters or even his situations, but he also knows exactly what kind of movie it is. Ultimately, it’s a skillfully crafted action thriller with a cool monster, making it a fantastic game. A great bloody, fast, often funny and exciting moment in cinema. It may not be a film of deep contemplative themes or emotional weight, but it sure is a lot of fun. In our time when we are constantly bombarded with despair and trauma, both in daily life and on screen, there is something to be said for that.