"The Relic" is, indeed, a sort of relic, a moldy old corpse of a horror movie hung on a slick new skeleton of a plot. All the cliches are evident: Vain, greedy people die, a few nice people live, and dummies keep venturing into dark rooms and watery tunnels even though THE MONSTER IS IN THERE!
Despite its obvious formula, occasional silliness and outright theft of monster antics from recent hit movies, it's exciting.
In a story reminiscent of "Doctor Who," an Indy Jones-type representative of Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History visits an ancient South American tribe, drinks a brew and starts tripping. But there's more than just a hallucinatory drug at work. The cargo he ships to the museum contains clues about a mythical creature associated with the tribe. So when a critter starts whacking people in the museum's shadows, we soon figure out what's going on.
It takes the characters a lot longer, even using DNA analysis. They include an evolutionary biologist played by Penelope Ann Mil- ler, convincing but far too elegant to be working in a cavelike lab all day long, and Tom Sizemore as the likable detective on the case.
Just after the slaughter begins, there's a gala exhibition premiere to which all of Chicago's rich and powerful are invited. Despite the detective's attempts to stop the festivities, the arrogance of the mighty prevails, and you know what that means: Monster food!
This is a gory, bloody, violent brand of amusement. We're talking decapitations, unsurgical brain removal, slashing, burning and battering, even endangerment of dogs and children.
Despite the film's shock value, you may get a sense of deja vu. Director Peter Hyams has stylishly envisioned the catacomb-riddled museum as a dark and dangerous lair, and production designer Philip Harrison's clever "Superstition" exhibit, the centerpiece of the film, would be at home in any museum. But the monster leaps like a Velociraptor in "Jurassic Park"; there are confrontations in water and tunnels just like in "Aliens" and even Miller's slimy close encounter seems a little too much like Sigourney Weaver's in "Alien 3."
In ripping off scary movies, at least "The Relic" mostly rips off good ones.
Starring Penelope Ann Miller and Tom Sizemore
Directed by Peter Hyams
Released by Paramount
Rated R (extreme violence, gore, language)
Sun score: ** 1/2
Pub Date: 1/10/97