Review: “The Relic” (Film)

Well, since I still seem to be in the mood for films (and am still reading the next novel I plan to review, albeit at a slow pace of 20-30 pages a day), I suddenly realised that it’s been a while since I last watched a monster movie. And, yes, although I’m still very much in the mood for “feel good” films, I also consider this wonderfully cheesy (and not really that scary) sub-genre of horror films to fall into that category.

Luckily, whilst shopping online for second-hand DVDs a few days earlier, I found a rather intriguing-looking sci-fi horror film from 1997 called “The Relic”. It could have been the gloriously melodramatic cover art, the fact that it is set in a museum or the fact that the film’s title reminded me a little of an unrelated 1980s horror novel, but it seemed like it could be worth watching.

So, let’s take a look at “The Relic”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

The film begins in a forest in Brazil, with an American anthropologist called John Witney documenting a ritual being performed by a local tribe. They give him some kind of tea to drink and he suddenly begins to hallucinate and flinch in fear at one of the people nearby.

Sometime later, he rushes to the docks and tries to intercept a box of artefacts that he’d originally sent to Chicago. The ship’s captain tells him that he can’t remove anything after customs has checked it. So, John stows away on board and finds the box. He opens it and then starts screaming.

And, yes, he wears an Indiana Jones hat too. If you can actually see it in this gloom.

In Chicago, world-weary detective Vincent D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) is called out to the docks after the authorities find a deserted cargo ship adrift in the water. He’s in a bad mood because his ex-wife has just taken custody of his pet dog. His mood gets even worse when he finds blood spatter on the walls of the ship. Although one of his fellow detectives is eager to write the ghost ship off as the result of a drug-related crime at sea, a more thorough search turns up what is left of the crew floating in the ship’s bilge deck.

At the Chicago Museum Of Natural History, an evolutionary biologist called Dr. Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller) shows up to work after meeting two schoolboys who are playing truant (and, in the tradition of Seymour Skinner, have decided to visit the museum). There is a gala planned in a few days time to celebrate the opening of a superstition-themed wing of the museum and Dr.Green learns that she needs to charm some of the wealthy patrons who will be attending because one of her co-workers from another department is trying to poach funding from her department.

After an argument with said co-worker, Dr. Green visits John’s office. He still isn’t back from Brazil, but a delivery of artefacts has arrived. One of the crates contains a smashed statue of a mythical monster and the other is empty except for leaves covered in strange red spores. The museum director orders the leaves to be incinerated, but – out of curiosity – Dr. Green takes one of them and begins running scientific tests on it.

What could possibly go wrong?

“Specimen Unidentified”? What a surprise!

Later that night, a security guard finishes his shift and decides to have a crafty spliff in the museum bathroom. Because older Hollywood horror movies can be more puritanical than Ned Flanders, something suddenly grabs his leg and drags him away. There is a lot of screaming.

D’Agosta shows up to the museum the next day to investigate the guard’s grisly remains. When he attends the autopsy, he also learns that part of the guard’s brain has been removed. Fearing that a serial killer is hiding inside the building, D’Agosta wants to keep the museum closed whilst the police carefully search the many basements and storerooms, but the museum administration and the Mayor want it re-opened in time for the gala…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that whilst it should be a good film in theory, the practice isn’t always perfect. In other words, it has some really cool elements and an interesting concept behind it, but these things are let down somewhat by the way they are presented. Yet, saying this, some of the “bad” creative decisions in this film are also fairly understandable too.

So, I should probably start by talking about the film’s… lighting design, of all things. One of the cool things about 1990s films (in many genres) is that they often use a very distinctive gloomy style of lighting.

This adds atmosphere to a film whilst also allowing the director to creatively use lighting to subtly highlight things and/or to create dramatic chiaroscuro-style contrasts between light and darkness. When done well, it looks amazingly cool. But, whilst this film sometimes gets the lighting right, large parts of it either take place in almost total darkness or include barely enough light to even make a guess at what is going on.

Sometimes, the lighting is really excellent 1990s-style lighting with enough contrast between light and darkness to allow the viewer to see what is going on.

But, quite often, the film looks a bit more like this! Can you tell what is going on here?

Yes, I understand the practical and creative reasons for this decision. By making the lighting very gloomy, it adds extra suspense to the film and also leaves some of the horror to the viewer’s imagination – which theoretically makes it more frightening.

The ultra-gloomy lighting also means that the most of mid-late 1990s CGI during some scenes involving the monster still looks reasonably good today. It means that the film-makers can do a lot more with a lower special effects budget. It also creates a disorientating sense of panic during the film’s more frantic moments too. So, there are some very good practical and artistic reasons behind the film’s lighting design.

However, as hinted earlier, it can make it very difficult to tell what is going on during large parts of the film. Yes, you can usually make a reasonably good guess, but this film may as well be a radio drama some of the time. [Edit: However, thinking about it more, this could possibly either just be an issue specific to this DVD edition or possibly even the monitor that I watched it on.]

As you would expect, the film’s horror elements consist mostly of suspense, a few mild “jump” moments, gory horror and sci-fi monster horror. Although this film probably isn’t going to give horror movie fans nightmares, these elements are handled really well.

The monster design is really creative and the backstory behind it is reasonably well-explained, with the film even presenting a fairly detailed in-universe reason for why it likes to eat people’s brains (since it’s a DNA chimera of several species, created from plant hormones similar to those found in the hypothalamus). Seriously, I cannot fault the creative concept behind this film 🙂

Not to mention that the monster is also vaguely reminiscent of “Predator”, whilst also very much being it’s own thing too.

Likewise, although the ultra-gloomy lighting makes it difficult to tell what is going on during some parts of the film, it does at least make the monster look a bit more “realistic”. And, as I mentioned earlier, it also does an absolutely great job of making most of the mid-late 1990s CGI look fairly good when seen today. Seriously, in terms of monster effects, this could pretty much be a modern film.

Except for one very brief moment where the monster turns into the T-1000 for a couple of seconds.

The film’s gore effects are also really well-handled too. Although you shouldn’t expect too much of a splatter-fest here, this film uses the clever technique of using some brilliantly grotesque, detailed and realistic-looking practical effects during the more brightly-lit earlier scenes in order to prime the viewer’s imagination so that the less-detailed gruesome moments later in the film also seem fairly grisly, even though you don’t actually see that much – due to the almost-impenetrable gloom. Seriously, this is how to use a limited special effects budget.

Thematically, this film focuses on the topic of “science vs. superstition”. Although this is mostly used for a few brief comedic dialogue segments and to add a small amount of characterisation to the main characters, it also adds a tiny bit of depth to the film too. Since, although there are ancient myths explaining the monster, Dr.Green still insists on finding a scientific explanation for it (which also adds a bit of “X-Files” style sci-fi horror to the film too). Still, the practical outcome of both things is exactly the same – there is a brain-eating monster lurking in the museum.

As for the characters, this is another area where the film should “work” in theory – but doesn’t in practice. The two main characters are an under-funded evolutionary biologist who believes in science and a world-weary Chicago detective who has good instincts, some superstitious beliefs and a bit of a backstory.

On the plus side, they seem fairly “realistic” and the film’s focus on plot rather than characters also means that the film moves along at a reasonable pace. Plus, the contrast between superstition and science also hearkens back to Mulder and Scully from “The X-Files” too.

However, not only is Dr. Green absent for a fairly sizeable segment of the film, but both main characters don’t really get quite enough characterisation to make the viewer care about what happens to them. Yes, they seem like fairly “realistic” (albeit minimalist) characters, but they also seem a little bit too much like stock characters for the viewer to really get invested in them enough to give the film’s suspenseful moments a real feeling of nervous, uncertain suspense. Good horror relies on good characterisation, on the viewer actually caring about what happens to the characters.

D’Agosta is a “grizzled, cynical cop” character. See pretty much any detective TV show for other examples.

Dr. Green is a “scientist” character. See “The X-Files” or pretty much any sci-fi TV show for other examples.

The film’s pacing is also another area that should work in theory, but doesn’t in practice. This film begins with a mysterious opening scene and then gradually builds in intensity as the story progresses. So far, so good. However, the film’s most dramatic, fast-paced, gripping etc.. parts only really appear fairly late into the film. So, there’s a lot of build-up but relatively little payoff.

Also, this is one of those films that is too much like a thriller (eg: police procedural elements, disaster movie elements, action sequences etc..) to really “work” as a horror movie, whilst also including too many horror elements (eg: one monster, creepy suspense etc...) to really “work” as the kind of fast-paced thriller film it tries to be during a few moments. Still, it never really gets that boring.

All in all, whilst this film wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be, I can’t quite call it an entirely bad film either. It is a film that does a lot of the right stuff in theory, but doesn’t always work that well in practice. Still, it has some good points and – as I said earlier – it isn’t an entirely “bad” film either.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and a half.

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