The contemporary horror movie has seen some rough times at the box office since the glory days of such hits as The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976).
For a while, it seemed as if spookies (as one old-fashioned Australian reviewer called them) had been consigned to an obscure, cult status on faraway shelves in large video shops.
But the genre's comeback can be celebrated by loyal fans, beginning with the success of Wes Craven's wonderful Scream (1996) and followed by the appearance of Peter Hyams' vigorous The Relic.
The Relic – to which talented screenwriters Amy Jones (Slumber Party Massacre, 1982) and Amanda Silver (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, 1992) contributed – will seem to some like a cut-and-paste of moments from previous milestones of terror. The shadow of the Alien series looms especially large, as a gang of mostly helpless humans flee like ants before a grotesque, mutating beast that wants only to hunt down and kill them.
This movie does not even spare us the obligatory prologue set in a mystical, primitive land – a savage, archaic place from which the mysterious relic of the title begins its apocalyptic journey to the land of the free. Once the action centres itself in a Natural History Museum, however, the film runs a time-honoured gauntlet of claustrophobia.
Hyams, who doubles as his own cinematographer, renders his central location as a menacingly dark labyrinth of locked doors, cramped passageways and stark stairwells.
The human element in this tale is rather negligible. Margo (Penelope Ann Miller) is one of those deceptively faint-hearted heroines who progressively strips down for some bone-crushing action while extras die in extravagant ways all around her. Vincent (Tom Sizemore) is her fairly useless colleague.
As for the monster, its presence is almost purely functional. It is hardly a symbol of any disturbing social or personal repression, the way such creatures once were in popular movies. If anything, it represents the terror of the modern workplace: the scary Other with whom one must uneasily share an office or shop-floor.
The Relic has its share of problems. Many of its situations and lines are less than inspired, it takes a very long time to get burning. But once the final showdown between monster and human is in sight, it becomes terrific, galvanising fun – a spooky to treasure.
© Adrian Martin May 1997