The F*cking Black Sheep: The Relic (1997)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!

THE RELIC (1997)


I must admit friends, until very recently, I had never seen THE RELIC. No, not MIMIC, Guillermo del Toro’s killer-bug flick also released in 1997, I’m talking about Peter Hyams’ unabashed, big-budget B-movie creature feature starring Tom Sizemore and Penelope Ann Miller. I always get those two confused, don’t you? Well, I finally dusted off THE RELIC the other day and was actually quite delighted with how much I enjoyed the film, for a multitude of reasons, and wondered why it had been so unjustly tossed aside over the past two decades.

Now, we’ve granted some generous leniency to a number of so-called F*cking Black Sheep over the years (SPAWN anyone?), but I truly mean it, THE RELIC is a far better movie than it’s been credited as. Honestly, when watching it 2017, the movie felt to me akin to a 2-hour X-Files episode, with Miller standing in quite comparably to Gillian Anderson (I love those redheads), Sizemore quite unfavorably to Duchovny, and the horrific sci-fi premise fitting in perfectly. A flawless film? Of course not. But is it one of our strongest and most genuine candidates for an iniquitously cast off F*cking Black Sheep of a film? Oh hell to the yes. Let me tell you why below!

For me, it starts with the pedigree. First off, Peter Hyams is a solidly accredited, even underrated filmmaker. Dude has an eclectic filmography under his belt, including flicks like BUSTING (love that one), 2010, RUNNING SCARED, STAY TUNED (love that one too), a few Van Damme joints (TIME COP, SUDDEN DEATH), END OF DAYS, etc. This guy knows how to craft a competent thriller. Then we have producer Gale Anne Hurd overseeing THE RELIC, James Cameron’s former producing partner who would go on to shepherd The Walking Dead at AMC. Not bad, right?

How about screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who are now ruling Hollywood with their venerated PLANET OF THE APES franchise. Still not sold? Last but not least, we have the late great Stan Winston at the helm of the Special FX department, and as always, he does not disappoint. Sure, I can already hear the counterargument that, well, if there was such an abundance of talent involved with the flick, why did it fall so flat when released back in ’97? Why isn’t the movie better? To which, I’d say, even Hurd’s pal Jim Cameron’s TITANIC eventually sank that year as well (not monetarily of course). No, really, THE RELIC was dumped as a January release and out of theaters before audiences could shovel the snow out of their driveways and make it out the Cineplex.

More to the point, there are three key facets of the film that I really do think excel and make the movie better than it’s remembered as. The first is the laughably ludicrous b-movie back-story. The second is the wonderful setting of the Museum of Natural History in Chicago (actually filmed at NYC museum). And last is the splendid special FX work by the aforementioned paragon of the form, Mr. Stan Winston. Let’s dissect, shall we!

The story’s glorious for how ridiculous it is, ameliorated by how well the actors sell it. A crateful of Brazilian artifacts gets shipped to the Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Inside, our resident evolutionary biologist, Dr. Margo Green (Miller), finds a pile of leaves infested with what look like insect eggs. Nope. Turns out to be some sort of fungus. And not just any fungus, but one that serve as fuel for our fearsome folkloric foe – The Kothoga - a reptilian-insectile mutation that feeds on a fungal hormone largely produced in the human hypothalamus. Thus, as The Kothoga continues to mutate and grow in size, it must decapitate every human it can locate in order crack its skull, extract the brain and feed on the hormone in order to thrive. Absolute lunacy, right? Yeah well I love that shite!

Cue detective D’Agosta (Sizemore), a superstitious dick fearful of crossing a black cat, a face-down coin or stepping over a dead body. He and his underling Hollingsworth (80s fan-fav Clayton Rohner of APRIL FOOL’S DAY and JUST ONE OF THE GUYS) are assigned to the Chi-town museum in the days before its gala-opening of a new exhibit called Superstition, which highlights the very South American history that the Kothoga derives from. It’s truly an inspired setting, one that makes sense in the context of the story, but also one that’s rarely used but perfect for a horror show. Think about it. The size and scale, the coldness, the beauty, the petrified bones a plenty. It’s perfect. And Hyams takes full advantage, not just giving us wonderfully imagined set-piece exhibits like the Superstition maze, but we see the guts of the structure as well – storage areas, dark corridors, medical labs, fenced-off inventory, subterranean sewage ways and the like. It’s a fully lived in locale, one I’m actually shocked that more horror movies do not take capitalize upon.

Really though, for a guy who never actually shows up onscreen, Stan Winston sure does have a way of stealing the show. His rendering of the Kothoga – which looks like a foreboding, ever-changing mutated meld of a half-dinosaur-half-predator-faced-bull – is pretty damn alarming. It really does look like a half-reptile-half-insect monstrosity. Word is the creature was deliberately shrouded until the final half of the film because Winston wasn’t quite finished with his FX designs, which is why Paramount pushed the movie back from summer of 1996 to the first month of 1997. Also, Paramount kept the look of the monster under wraps until the film was released, a la JURASSIC PARK, in order to retain a level of shock for the audience. The Kothoga is like a grand mutation of all of Winston’s past brilliance – as if you took PREDATOR, PUMPKINHEAD, LEVIATHAN, The T-Rex from JURASSIC and threw it in a f*cking blender with the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Shite’s gnarly!

My only real qualm with the film is that, at 110 minutes, it feels a tad too long. The movie breezes by at a highly entertaining clip, but still, a few down moments in the second half could have been lopped off to keep it even more engrossing. That and the fact that Tom Sizemore gives his most stolidly uninteresting performance perhaps ever are what galled me a bit. Seriously, that guy was so damn fun to watch in the mid-to-late 90s that it’s almost unthinkable how much of a dullard his Detective D’Agosto is here. Word is Hyams initially wanted Harrison Ford to play the role.

Look, all in all, THE RELIC is a bona fide F*cking Black Sheep. It’s a decent creature-feature-monster-movie, produced by a potent pedigree of above and below the line craftspeople. Hyams handles the material with assured competence, the setting is a rarely seen but genuinely inspired one, the acting makes the ludicrous plot actually seem buyable, and the best part, Stan Winston’s work on the Kothoga plays like a best-of celebration of his finest work. Straight up, for a movie called THE RELIC, 20 years hasn’t treated the film all that bad. Give it another tour!



Extra Tidbit: Which do you dig more: THE RELIC or MIMIC?
Source: AITH



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