In the late ’90s, an unlikely bestseller became a rip-roaring museum monster movie

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Jason Shawhan
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Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With a new Tom Clancy movie, Without Remorse, premiering on Amazon Prime, we’re looking back on other Hollywood adaptations of mass paperback novels, a.k.a. so-called airport fiction.


The Relic (1997)

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s 1995 novel Relic was something of an anomaly on the bestseller charts of the mid-’90s, unashamed of its nature as a work of horror. Borrowing DNA from Michael Crichton’s techno-thrillers, Steven Spielberg adventures (Jaws, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park in particular), EC Comics tales of symbolic retribution, and Thomas Harris’ baroque investigators, it was a four-quadrant phenomenon. Relic tapped into the readerships of National Geographic, Fangoria, and The New York Times Review Of Books, spawning a direct sequel and an entire series based on its lead investigator character, Special Agent Pendergast. The 1997 film adaptation, from director Peter Hyams (2010, Timecop) leaned into The Relic’s pulpy heritage, delivering an unrestrainedly gory R-rated horror film with a pedigree that got a surprising number of “respectable” folk into seats.

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At heart, The Relic is a monster movie periodically sidetracked by civic hierarchy and academic infighting. The film’s roots extend backward, through its parthenogenetic ancestor Alien, all the way to Joseph Conrad and his dissections of human enterprise. Enigmatic instigator/tribal observer Dr. Whitney (Lewis Van Bergen) moves from outsider to participant on behalf of Chicago’s Field Museum Of Natural History. And thanks to his experiences in the Brazilian jungle, visitors to the museum are going to get an all-too-immediate demonstration of what he’s learned. Anyone who’s attended a charity gala will recognize the razor-sharp mercenary process behind every cordon bleu, silent auction item, and half-strength well drink. And Child/Preston/Hyams make that subtext text in a splendidly bloody fashion with the Kothoga (or mbwun, if you stick with the book’s more elegant nomenclature), the oversized elephant/iguana/tiger/eurypterid biting off heads and sucking out brains after hours. Which makes The Relic a fairly nimble genre hybrid (much like its monster, the result of a fungus with a virus) that starts out like a narrative of trespass and transitions into a siege story.

The setting is marvelous. Museum horror is an underappreciated subgenre, and there are several exceptional lengthy tracking shots that lay out entire franchises worth of unspeakable terrors. (The Conjuring films were definitely paying attention). There’s even a tiny subplot about two schoolkids Mrs. Basil E. Frankweilering their way through the building with the monster on the loose (though the movie pulls its punches in a way the novel gleefully does not). At times, the film embraces its airport bestseller beginnings by unfolding like an Irwin Allen production, especially in its supporting cast. Where else (except maybe The Love Boat) could you find Oscar-winner Linda Hunt, the eternal Mrs. Roper Audra Lindley, and The Naked Kiss’ Constance Towers together? Like legendary ’70s disaster movies, The Relic knows exactly how many plaintive minutes of backstory an audience will tolerate before x number of rappelling first responders have to get disassembled by a shambling unknown.

The Relic sports the seeds of seemingly every digitally shot movie these days, where filmmakers who can get an exposure with almost no light do so without considering actual exhibition/viewing circumstances. Hyams, working as his own cinematographer, embraced a cavernous darkness that one or two motivated light sources struggle to define. On the plus side, this allows the mbwun to attain an almost mythic quality—it’s an incoherent menace that can arise from any shadow at any time. Stan Winston knew how to build amazing monsters, and his studio supplied the mbwun prototype; though occasionally undermined by its dodgy, periodic CGI incarnation, it is a genuinely terrifying creature. If nothing else, the history of cinema proves that a good monster can cover for a lot of sins.

Availability: The Relic is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu. It’s also available to rent or purchase digitally from Amazon, Google Play, Apple, YouTube, Fandango, Redbox, and VUDU.