Relic, The (1997)



Main Cast: Penelope Ann Miller, Tom Sizemore

Director: Peter Hyams

Things are moving forward on my new live television musical based on the film Event Horizon.  An absolutely brilliant scenic design team led by Jake and Ed have been transforming the billiard room, the conservatory, and the smoking lounge here at Condo Maine into delightful spaceship interiors with the help of some molded plastic and a large number of cans of spray paint (which keep getting left in the halls as trip hazards).

The all important gravity drive set won’t fit conveniently in any of my interior rooms so it’s being assembled on the roof of the Nakatomi Plaza building, just above my boudoir so I can easily shimmy up and down a specially built escape ladder between takes and rest in my own creature comforts.  Building management has been looking a bit askance but the terms of my purchase of the penthouse clearly state that I have roof access and air rights as long as I do not disturb the cellular tower or the air conditioning units.  We’re surrounding the set with a tent made of yards and yards of green screen to block out the view of Century City.  Cloth was a bit expensive so we’re using rolls of festive green plastic tablecloths from Party City. 

In terms of a supporting cast, I have feelers out to a number of important musical comedy stars including Hugh Jackman, Bette Midler, and Angela Lansbury.  After this year of Covid, they would be foolish not to return to the screen in a project of this importance appearing with a star of my magnitude so I expect the yeses and signed contracts to start pouring in any day now so we can begin the process of rehearsing the all important dance numbers. 

green screen Pixabay

The zero gravity ballet is likely to take some time to choreograph, as we will have to have Flying by Foy dangle the participants over the side of the building with cranes as there is no room left on the roof to install a zero gravity chamber.  We’ll also have to shoot at night in order to simulate the vast emptiness of space.  My cameraman, Mike, says he won’t have any trouble getting the lights of the buildings in the distance to look like a star field as long as he uses the correct filters.

I had a quick meeting with Leah, head of my consumer products division to discuss a new line of collector plates, teaspoons, and thimbles commemorating this important TV milestone (to be released several weeks before the broadcast at four low payments of only $19.99 and available in a choice of four decorator colors including Vicki Violet, Lester Lemon, Norman Neon Orange, and Maine Magenta) and then decided to repair to the home theater for a film.  I’ve been rewatching some classic horror films in order to gather inspiration for the Event Horizon project so I brought up Amazon Prime to see what might be available this week and ran across The Relic, a creature feature from 1997 starring Penelope Ann Miller and Tom Sizemore.  I opened a fresh bottle of Grand Marnier and settled in for a watch.  I knew I had seen it in the past but remembered little about it other than it took place in a museum.

The Relic begins somewhere in the jungles of South America where anthropologist John Whitney (Lewis Van Bergen) is participating in one of those native ceremonies that exist mainly in Hollywood films.  He is given a tea to drink and, just as we expect him to go off on some sort of ayahuasca trip, the film cuts to him loading up crates on a cargo ship to be returned to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.  He has a major come apart on the dock when he realizes that several of the crates he has sent may have missed the boat.  The boat is found, weeks later, drifting in Lake Michigan and is towed into Chicago.  There are splashes of blood, but no crew.  Police detective D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) investigates, eventually finding the decapitated bodies of the crew floating in the bilge.  Much exposition follows including the explanation of tunnels under the city from the harbor, now abandoned, which were used in the past to bring barges of coal to major buildings for coal powered heating. 

Switch gears and we travel to the Field Museum (a real institution, lovingly photographed).  Museum director Ann Cuthbert (Linda Hunt) is in the midst of planning for the annual gala and the opening of a new exhibit on superstition.  When one of the museum’s security guards is brutally murdered in a manner similar to the boat crew, D’Agosta suspects a connection and tries to shut things down.  Meanwhile, brilliant evolutionary biologist Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller) takes receipt of the crates that missed the original boat and finds inside them a relic of a mystical being and a lot of leaves coated with an odd fungus that appears to allow for the rapid evolution of a life form if ingested (a common beetle turning into a huge slimy horror). 

She and her mentor Dr. Frock (James Whitmore) start puzzling out what’s going on, all while dealing with police presence and an unctuous rival (Chi Muoi Lo).  A reasonable suspect for the killings is found, the party goes on, hundreds of extras in evening dress pack the exhibition but something evil is still out there.  If you have half a brain, you’ll figure out what it is and why long before the characters do as the second half of the film descends into mayhem, destruction, and additional decapitations.

The Relic was directed by Peter Hyams, known for crafting well made genre pieces such as Capricorn One, Timecop, and End of Days.  He cuts back and forth between the various story lines seamlessly and keeps the tension up by not revealing too much too fast about the monster (a legendary Brazilian demon called a kathoga) either in terms of origin or in what its appearance and abilities actually are.  The filmmaking rises above the sometimes pedestrian script which tends to meander off into various loose ends and which is credited to several different writing teams (never a good sign).  In particular, he makes great use of the cavernous exhibition halls of the Field Museum, contrasting them with the cramped lab space and tunnels below. Hyams did his own cinematography which helps keep The Relic a unified whole.  He was helped by Stan Winston’s creature design, incorporating reptilian, mammalian and arachnid features.

The performances are all fine.  The actors know they are appearing in genre fare where the creature and the boo moments are far more important than they are.  Tom Sizemore has the appropriate world weariness as the jaded police detective putting the pieces together. Penelope Ann Miller is unusual as she portrays a heroine with intelligence and authority who manages to fight against damsel in distress stereotypes.  The supporting cast are all having fun and its nice to see the aging James Whitmore, and John Kapelos in character roles. No one was going to go up for an Oscar, but they work well as an ensemble and play off each other nicely.

In the end, The Relic is a boo movie and a creature feature, but a well made one and worth a few hours if you’re in the mood for such fare.

Dock tantrum. Floating heads. Gratuitous Audra Lindley. Police dogs. Bathroom murder. String quartet. Ancient mummies. Maceration tank. Staircase falling.  Screaming extras. Bisected SWAT team member.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction

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