January is so often seen as a dumping ground for films that studios have little faith in, either for any awards consideration or box office success. If a film isn’t Oscar bait or likely to be a summer blockbuster, January is where they’re dropped. To be fair, there is at least some truth in this. It tends to be a season of “low brow” comedies, middling dramas, and tepid romances. That said, it can also be fertile ground for niche science fiction and horror films that are willing to take the big swings. A great example of this is 1997’s The Relic, one of the great unsung creature features to come along in the wake of Jurassic Park.
Steven Spielberg’s film was such a massive success in 1993 that it’s something of a wonder that there weren’t more dinosaur and giant monster movies released throughout the middle of the decade. There are exceptions to this of course – Anaconda, Deep Rising, and Lake Placid come to mind – but considering the cultural phenomenon that was Jurassic Park, it’s still relatively few. Granted, the main reason for this is most likely financial as the practical and computer effects needed to create such films were prohibitively expensive at the time; or at least in order to be done well. And let’s face it, nothing was going to be able to hold a candle to Spielberg’s epic.
Most of what was made at this time were extremely low budget or direct to video films like Tammy and the T-Rex and the Roger Corman produced Carnosaur films. But The Relic is one of the few creature features of the mid 90s 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 the gritty detective thrillers like Seven popular at the time, and a classic B-monster movie. I don’t mean that as a negative in any sense. It is not a cheap or shoddy film by any means, but its plot could have been drawn straight from the pulps of the 1950’s. It has an exotic expedition, a hard-boiled detective, a beautiful scientist, a wheelchair bound older sage, a creature based in myth, evolution, and pseudo-science, and plenty of dark passages and corridors for it to hide out in. These are all staples of the golden age of science fiction and The Relic brings them into the 90’s with interesting new variations and style.
The entire film is bolstered by a very strong cast, led by Tom Sizemore as Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta and Penelope Ann Miller as evolutionary biologist Dr. Margo Green. Though both of these actors regularly played supporting roles throughout the 90’s, The Relic is a rare leading 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 his career just as it could have truly taken off. The Relic is ultimately an ensemble film, however, and spends a great deal of time with several characters. Among the most memorable are Linda Hunt as Dr. Cuthbert, the director of The Field Museum of Natural History where the bulk of the movie takes place, James Whitmore as its curator Dr. Frock, and Clayton Rohner as D’Agosta’s partner Detective Hollingsworth.
Every one of these characters as well as several others are given their moments to shine. Because they are generally well written and played by such skilled performers, we as an audience feel the stakes of the film far more. It would be a stretch to call them complicated or three-dimensional characters, but they are more than mere cardboard cutouts set up to be killed off. Even the only briefly seen John Whitney (Lewis Van Bergen) is a thoroughly drawn character that gives weight to certain scenes of the film. One of my favorite ancillary characters is the coroner Dr. Matilda Zwiezic (Audra Lindley), who proves in her brief scene the old adage that there are no small parts and delivers one of the most memorable performances in the entire film.
Of course, the real star of any creature feature is the monster itself, and The Relic has a great one.
The Kothoga is a mythical chimera, a mixture of lizard, insect, and one more aspect that I won’t spoil for those who have not yet seen the film. It grows in size throughout the course of the movie and evolves rapidly, all the while feeding of the hormones drawn from the human hypothalamus. It is 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 much of the CGI of the era, the effects of The Relic generally hold up, at least until the fire effects at the end, which have advanced a great deal in the past twenty-five years. The practical creature was designed, fabricated, and operated by the legendary Stan Winston and his team. Though it does not have the iconic status of other designs from Winston like the Terminator endoskeleton, the Xenomorph queen, or even Pumpkinhead, maybe it should. It’s a fantastic looking monster with a memorable method of dispatching its prey and a few surprising abilities unique in giant monster movies.
The reason it has not reached this kind of status may be due to the fact that the Kothoga itself is used sparingly and is often largely concealed by darkness. This was likely both for technical reasons and to fit with the look and feel of the film as a whole. Director Peter Hyams, one of our more reliable and consistent journeyman directors since the 1970’s, builds a great deal of suspense by utilizing the darkness of the subterranean tunnels and corridors of the museum. The reliance on 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 underground lair of the Kothoga are among the best in the film. Hyams also expertly cuts from place to place with ease, building parallel tension as discoveries by Dr. Green or Lt. D’Agosta in one location are paid off in another.
Though it relies largely on suspense, the film also doesn’t skimp on the gore. After all, the story is built upon a creature that beheads its victims with its mandibles and literally sucks out their brains. The gore may well be one of the reasons the film was released in January rather than in the more family friendly summer season. The bloodletting is never exactly over the top but it’s certainly strong enough to warrant the film’s R rating.
It is safe to say that the mid-90’s were lean years for horror fans. That’s not to say that horror films were not being made, but few made much lasting impact either at the box office or on genre fans. This all changed in late 1996 with the release of Scream. The Relic was to some extent caught in the cyclone of this revolution as it was happening. Though it opened at number one in January of 1997, it ultimately only made back just over half of its budget. Horror was about to rapidly change, and big budget creature features (Lake Placid notwithstanding) were not part of that new direction for the time being. The further failure of Godzilla the following year along with the massive success of The Blair Witch Project, with its unprecedented profit to budget ratio, only solidified this.
Despite the fact that it was lost in the shuffle of these massive shifts in horror, The Relic is a film worth digging up. It both revels in the gritty realism of the 90’s while being a terrific throwback to a bygone era of horror storytelling. It delights in its own absurdities but does so with a straight face. It never ridicules its characters or even its situations, but it also knows exactly what kind of movie it is. Ultimately, it’s a skillfully made action thriller with a cool monster, and that makes for a fantastic romp. A great, gory, fast-paced, often funny, and thrilling time at the movies. It may not be a film of deep contemplative themes or emotional weight, but it sure is a hell of a lot of fun. In our current time of being constantly bombarded with despair and trauma, both in daily life and on screen, there’s something to be said for that.
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