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The Relic

The Relic

By Arpad Lukacs • June 2nd, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Paramount Pictures

Original release: January 10th 1997
Running time: 110 minutes

Director: Peter Hyams
Writers: Amy Holden Jones, John Raffo, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Cast: Penelope Ann Miller, Tom Sizemore, Linda Hunt, James Whitmore

In my early teens, I was prone to believing in superstitious ideas. Most of these came from the random workings of my own mind – little rules and patterns I made up in a vain attempt to take control of my future. If I tap the threshold three times before leaving the house, I’ll get that bike I really want within a month. So why not do it? Maybe it’ll work.

Of all the mainstream superstitions, I find these private rituals the most interesting and telling of how the human mind works. It’s evident a person’s lifestyle or profession can also have an impact on how much they ‘fall victim’ to these personal habits. Professional tennis players, for instance, are famously superstitious with all sorts of strange rituals they deem absolutely necessary in order to overcome their next opponent.

What I enjoyed the most about Peter Hyams’ horror film, The Relic was its frequent juxtaposition of science with superstition as the characters battled their own monstrous opponent. It just so happens I left superstition behind with my teens and when I watch the film these days, I wholeheartedly root for the science side of things.

The Relic

Therefore my favourite character is inevitably the stubborn and idealistic evolutionary biologist, Dr. Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller). Working at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Margo feels unscientific nonsense is creeping into her guarded life of facts and figures. She – as well as the museum – is desperate for money to continue research and preserve the tremendous amount of artefacts and data collected over the years.

In an attempt to deal with the financial difficulties, the museum’s director, Dr. Cuthbert (Linda Hunt), has organised an exhibition, titled “Superstition” – much to Margo’s disdain.

Nevertheless, the preview gala of the exhibition attracts several high profile and well-to-do guests who are willing to hand out grants to fund science projects and there’s plenty of media coverage as the mayor of Chicago (Robert Lesser) is also in attendance, but there’s great trouble already lurking inside the museum.

A security guard has just been murdered in an extremely gruesome manner with his brain completely extracted from his skull after being decapitated. Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) is immediately on the case due to several identical murders that took place on an incoming merchant ship just a week prior.

While they have every reason to think the murderer is still inside the museum and that this has something to do with a shipment from Brazil, in which Margo discovers leaves with strange fungus growing on the surface, The Relicthe gala is too important to be cancelled. The mayor himself orders D’Agosta to not interfere with the event.

The story is very interesting in the way Margo needs to battle superstition and faith from several different directions all at once. Lieutenant D’Agosta also turns out to be very superstitious in his own mainstream ways; black cats, stepping over dead bodies, broken mirrors and picking up coins with face down all make this police officer very nervous.

His life is guided by his continuing attempts to avoid bad luck and when he asks Margo if we’re still evolving, she replies with sarcasm: “Some of us are”. Elderly wheelchair-bound Dr. Frock is a good friend of Margo’s at the museum, but he never fails to tell her that some ancient myths could be based on facts. He has his own treasured theory called the “Callisto Effect”; Dr. Frock argues that old mythological stories about monsters are sometimes tales of creatures that were created by a “sudden evolutionary change”.

The Relic

It’s not hard to identify the source of inspiration for Margo’s character. The images of her sitting in front of the lab computer with its blue screen reflecting from her glasses are practically identical with the images of Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) doing just that in the TV series The X-Files. Margo rolls her eyes at the idea of belief in any shape or form and fights for science and truth in a very idealistic way. She’s often outnumbered in The Relic; her ideals aren’t always compatible with the world around her.

While it turns out that Dr. Frock is right about mythological monsters being real, his “Callisto Effect” theory is nevertheless incorrect. When the existence of the creature becomes evident, Dr. Frock is so overjoyed he can’t see the true origins of the mythical “Kothoga”.

Margo finds out the fungus from the leaves contains concentrated hormones which causes rapid mutation when consumed. In spite of these answers being available to Dr. Frock, his passion for his theory won’t let him see these abnormal changes are caused by a virus and have nothing to do with evolution. The RelicWhen Dr. Frock eventually has his fateful encounter with the creature, he smiles at the sight of the monster he’d theorised about – in a scene that links belief with irrational behaviour.

Of course, I couldn’t possibly go without mentioning that The Relic is a very entertaining horror with cool scare moments, gore and an awesome monster created by Stan Winston.

Director Peter Hyams made a very interesting choice with the film’s visual style; The Relic is probably the darkest horror film I’ve seen – in a literal sense. Even the gala opening is a dimly lit scene with the guests entering the museum’s main hall, walking amongst re-creations of wild animals battling each other.

While at first I found these overtly dark scenes puzzling, I’ve come to think of it as one of the film’s unique properties that add to the eerie atmosphere. The performances are also great; Linda Hunt is fantastic as the stoic museum director Dr. Cuthbert. Unlike Margo, she understands and accepts that sometimes you have to put your pride to one side and mingle with rich people a little bit to get ahead in life.

It’s Margo, the idealistic scientist, who drives the story home for me; she makes sure that while battling a monster, facts prevail over superstition.

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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