Occasionally, a movie may lack any distinctive features, yet it is executed with such excellence in comparison to numerous others within its genre that it succeeds in distinguishing itself, as exemplified by 1997’s The Relic.
The basics are what we might expect from any other horror story: in Chicago‘s famous Field Museum of Natural History, everything is in turmoil as a public event dawns where all the city’s most influential figures will be in attendance.
But our protagonist, Dr. Margo Green, has other things to consider as funding for her evolutionary genetics research is about to run out.
Meanwhile, a drifting ship laden with corpses arrives at the port, and Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta finds no explanation, at least until another decapitated body of one of the guards appears in one of the museum’s bathrooms.
At that point, the police believes that a dangerous killer is possibly still hiding inside the building, still the museum management and the mayor himself dictate that everything stay open because of the upcoming major exhibition.
It will only be when Lieutenant and Dr. Green begin to collaborate that they finally understand the origins of these murders, discovering that along with the ship came to town a monstrous creature that the extinct South American tribes called Kothoga.
This monster was the tribe’s secret weapon, taking a common animal and transforming it into an unstoppable predator by making it eat certain mushrooms with mutagenic properties.
Unfortunately, it will be too late to raise the alarm by that time because the animal has already begun to wreak havoc inside the museum, which goes into lockdown due to a computer malfunction, becoming a death trap for all party guests.
How can you not love these old horror B Movies?
Perhaps finer critics than I will never put Peter Hyams among the best directors in film history, yet I have adored every movie in his long career.
In this case, Hyams works every possible stereotype from the old horror B movies of 1997, dividing as the film genre requires The Relic into a survival adventure in three distinct chapters.
So we have the introduction of the various characters (stereotypical but hilarious) in the vast labyrinth museum, following the investigation of the first monster murders, and finally, the big blood feast with everyone trapped with no way out.
As usual, Hyams also takes care of the cinematography in his evocative and elegant style, where the dark scenes are actually dark, but we always know what is going on thanks to small details wisely lit by the director.
Equally solid is the constant tense atmosphere that charges each scene, especially when the characters are left alone, with the monster lurking, ready to pounce and rip off their heads to feed on the delicious hypothalamus in their brains.
It is a horror formula that is as simple as it is practical, with the monster becoming increasingly unstoppable with each passing minute, for example, by unceremoniously slaughtering an entire SWAT team trying to enter the building by rappelling down from the roof.
Equally good pacing is provided by John Debney‘s adventurous and mysterious music, perhaps excessive in the action scenes, but always pleasant and exciting in enhancing the fun spirit of a story that is not to be taken too seriously but just enjoyed as a happy, horrors-loving child.
Triple-A cast and direction for an enjoyable B movie
Besides Peter Hyams‘ outstanding direction, what gives The Relic its edge is a cast of first-rate actors and actresses, among the best you could find around in 1997 movies.
The former has always been a prominent face in tough and sometimes crazy roles, such as the gorgeous ex-cop/philosopher in Strange Days or even just as a sidekick to action hero Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57.
Here, he is an intelligent and humorous homicide detective, angry because his wife has wrested custody of his dog from him, whom we see proceeding in his investigation alongside the beautiful doctor with whom he reunites only halfway through the movie.
Equally iconic cinema face is the stunning Penelope Ann Miller, here at the peak of her beauty, still at 33 but already a confirmed actress who had been Al Pacino‘s sad dancer in love just a few years earlier in Brian De Palma‘s immortal Carlito’s Way.
Wanting to make a percentage, practically 90 percent of every scene has one or the other of these two characters, or together, whose innate charisma holds the story even in moments of exaggerated action that might have been less believable.
Equally good is the rest of the supporting crew, with the friendly tiny Linda Hunt as the museum caretaker and the wise James Whitmore as the doctor’s old mentor, completing the round of essential characters to the storytelling.
I would have appreciated more space for Lewis Van Bergen, here in the role of John Whitney, the researcher who will bring the big mess to Chicago from faraway South America and who we later discover is even more important in the ending.