Pity poor James Whitmore. After battling giant ants in the B-movie monster classic Them! ('54), he's surely earned himself a comfy armchair in a Florida retirement home? Er, no...
Back then, as brave Sergeant Peterson, he had the full might of the American army behind him - field artillery, tanks, machine guns, aerial bombardment, and, of course, big flamethrowers. How he must wish for all that now: against the Kothoga, an unstoppable DNA-spliced lobe-slurper that's prowling around a Chicago museum, Whitmore's Dr Albert Frock is armed with only a desk lamp, a fluffy blanket and a cute biologist in a party dress. Worse still, agehas confined him to a wheelchair, so if there's any running away to be done, he's stuffed. Especially if stairs are involved...
As you might expect from the man who brought us the likes of The Presidio and Timecop, Peter Hyam's latest is a well-made but, in basic construction, rather old-fashioned effort - a noisy, zippily paced horror flick, with all the familiar ingredients present and correct. There's evidence of X-Files and Aliens influence if you're looking for it, but it's the really predictable elements that are somehow most pleasing - the cat that leaps out to frighten a character (when you think it's going to be the monster), the chief of police who refuses to believe that there's a sadistic cranial driller-killer on the loose, the innocent teenagers who get locked in overnight, the chirpy cops who foolishly volunteer to "check out the basement", and, of course, the slimy, rampaging beastie itself. There's even an ancient Aztec figurine - with, believe it or not, a built-in curse.
But, although all this might sound snoozily familiar, the end result is actually remarkably fresh. There's a fair degree of organ-spillage going on here - a grisly post-mortem, a nightwatchman harshly decapitated, disposable SWAT men chewed up - but most of the time The Relic scares the shit out of you in more subtle ways. Its hybrid demon/baddie thing is unusually smart, for instance, stalking its prey like one of Jurassic Park's raptors, while somehow managing to bypass all the security doors slammed down to trap it. Quite how it got so brainy is unclear. As for how it wiggled its way into the museum in the first place - various amusing scientific theories are put forward to explain the presence of this barn-sized critter (a sort of chimera -- a mythological amalgam of lizard, spider, lion and God knows what else), but if any one hypothesis is ever decided upon, I must have missed it.
Probably the most fun aspect of this exceedingly likeable SF/horror thriller is the Kothoga itself. Part Stan Winston animatronic model and part VIFX computer graphic, the creature likes to suck the thalamus and pituitary glands from its victims' heads. (The suitably slow-on-the-uptake Chicago Police Department spends much of the movie searching for a more prosaic man-with-sharp-knife, despite all the impossible-to-swallow evidence to the contrary.) One of the big problems with most horror films is that the monster is unveiled in all its unconvincing lack of glory too soon - you know, rubber shark surfaces too near to camera, hiker-butchering sasquatch lingers just long enough to look curiously like a tall bloke in a Chewbacca outfit. But Hyams wisely keeps things nice and dark (a hairy leg here, a chitinous carapace there) for most of the movie. By the time we eventually do get to see the Kothoga, it's chowing down on half of Chicago's high society, and suddenly the lack of believability doesn't matter, as you're swept away by the disaster-style action.
The weak point is the same one that dogged all the '50s monster flicks that inspired it - the badass beast is much more memorable than the human characters trying to kill it. Tom Sizemore lazes his way through a (strangely action-free) divorced cop/hero role, and Miller does little but scream then fight back.
But this is an enjoyable wild haunted-house ride, with plenty of nervy tension and '90s action/adventure. There's not as much gore as you might expect (this is no The Thing), but The Relic is well-structured, neatly paced and boasts some really top-notch special effects. Perfect Saturday night entertainment.
Director Peter Hyams injects a bit of Crichtonesque technobabble into the old monster-in-the-cellar routine - and to great effect. Vertebrae-tingling tension is cleverly blended with man-eating terror that recalls the great days of Jaws, Alligator and Piranha. Try it: you'll have fun.