Why ‘The Relic’ Is a Horror Junkie’s Dream

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In the first scene of Peter Hyams’ “The Relic” an adventurer who is dressed like Indiana Jones (but is certainly not Harrison Ford) watches a fire ritual by an indigenous South American tribe.

He’s photographing the dance and even takes a sip of a potion given to him, which almost immediately causes him to hallucinate. Clearly, this man has never seen “Altered States” and doesn’t know that intruding upon a tribal ritual and drinking a magic potion out of politeness is never a sound idea.

Moments later, when his hallucination kicks in, he shouts the first line of dialog in English: “Oh God, The Kothoga!” I love movies like this.

The setting then changes to Chicago and it’s a shock to see the setting is in contemporary times, as the opening indicated a ’40s period, but never mind.

We meet Dr. Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller), a plucky biologist who works at the Field Museum of Natural History. Her boss (the indispensable Linda Hunt) is on edge over the crucial opening of a new exhibit, in which wealthy social elites and politicians are scheduled to arrive.

Meanwhile, a Chicago cop (Tom Sizemore) is investigating a series of gruesome murders, including one that occurred in the museum restroom. Eventually, the characters learn that the screwy events of the prologue have something to do with the carnage, which involves sudden appearances of severed heads and a massive, lizard-like monster.

FAST FACT: “The Relic” earned $33 million at the U.S. box office in 1997. The year’s big earner? “Men in Black” with $250 million.

“The Relic” gets a lot of mileage out of its setting, as the rich detail of the exterior and interior of the museum make it perfect for the mood Hyams is establishing and the eventual chases and monster attacks that occur. If this is little more than “Jurassic Park in a museum” (which was what the 1995 novel this is based on, “Relic” written by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, was also about), then it’s at least worthy of that distinction.

Hyams isn’t on the level of Steven Spielberg but his skillful touch and an excellent production elevate the material.

It’s the 1990s, so of course the first onscreen victim is an African-American (this came out the same year Omar Epps died on the toilet at the top of “Scream 2”). The victim was, however, smoking a joint in a men’s room, which means, in horror movie terms, his death is guaranteed.

“The Relic” hearkens back to a time when Paramount Pictures put a lot of money into their B-movies (think drive-in classics like “The Phantom,” “John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A.” and “Hard Rain”) Paramount Pictures still makes pulpy popcorn movies, of course, just for a lot more today (the aforementioned films all had budgets between $40-80 million).

Miller is once again playing a female lead named Margo (as in “The Shadow” in 1994); after providing support in a dozen noteworthy films, this is her first major starring role (if you ignore her best-forgotten “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag”).

Miller is a pleasant presence and a reliable actress, though you sense someone like Laura Dern or Diane Lane would have better suited the role.

Her co-star, Sizemore, tones down his amiable intensity from “True Romance” and “Natural Born Killers” but he’s in good form; note how he nails the key speech about his “lucky bullet.” Sizemore skulks around, doing his best David Caruso impression.

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Hunt’s hairdo and wardrobe make her bear an uncanny resemblance to Edna E. Mode of “The Incredibles” and she’s solid as always. Truthfully, as good as the actors are, the star is The Kothoga.

The monster is worth the slow unraveling, as it’s strange enough in appearance and wild in the carnage it exudes. Seeing this thing climb a wall and munch on a dangling cop is a jaw dropper. This is among creature designer Stan Winston’s most startling achievements.

The Kothoga is a combo of on-set F/X, puppetry and CGI. Only a fire sequence at the very end shows its age (fire still has a long way to go when its digitized and not the real thing).

Otherwise, Stan Winston Studios and the monster makers have outdone themselves. Worthy of mention is how The Kothoga, in appearance, scale and threat, isn’t all that different from the extraordinary giant tadpole in Bong Joon Ho’s 2006 masterpiece, “The Host.”

Hyams glossy cinematography is really quite beautiful, and the dialog ranges from pulpy quips to smarter-than-expected banter (Sizemore’s dressing down of the Mayor is priceless). The story becomes increasingly ridiculous in the final half, but Hyams and the F/X team keep it exciting and fast paced.

The logic of the creature’s origins are laughable (and, in hindsight, wildly illogical). So is the computer data system Miller uses, sporting a technology that looks even less advanced than Ask Jeeves.

While “Jurassic Park” was likely the onset mantra for all involved, “The Relic” takes its time to develop its premise and is actually paced like an Irwin Allen disaster movie. There’s a great build-up to the arrival of the well attired guests to the big museum unveiling, which coincides with the monster’s appearance.

It’s great fun watching the 1 percent get stalked and devoured by the creature, as they expect their wealth and power will somehow exclude them from becoming Kothoga food.

“The Relic” was originally scheduled to be a major contender during the summer of 1996, but the studio pushed it back to January of the following year (the exact same thing happened to “Hard Rain” the following year). It did mid-range business and never attained cult classic status, though its monster is remembered for its stunning appearance.

We’re not talking about a film in the same caliber as “Jurassic Park” or “Alien,” but this would make a fun and worthy double feature with “Tremors,” which I mean as high praise. Although it missed its chance to compete with the big summer hits of ’96, it’s an ideal watch for our currently bare, event-free summer movie season.

“The Relic” is a great monster movie, the kind where you actually like the humans but are still rooting for the creature to get a four-course meal.

Oh God, The Kothoga!

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