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Breathing a little new life into an idea as old as the hills

Directed By Peter Hyams.

Starring Tom Sizemore, Penelope Ann Miller, Linda Hunt, James Whitmore, Chi Muoi Lo, Thomas C. Ryan and Tico Wells.

Written by Amy Holden Jones, John Raffo, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, based on the novel by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.

By Jonathan Litt

Director Peter Hyams was likely the kid who told scary monster stories around the campfire while shining his flashlight in other kids' faces. His latest movie, The Relic, is his latest scary monster story, complete with a campfire and more than a fair share of flashlights shining in your face.

Based on the novel by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs, The Relic tells the story of an ancient, mythical creature that comes alive in Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. The problems start when a security guard is found decapitated in a museum bathroom with his brain ripped out of his skull (this isn't a movie to watch on a full stomach), and police Lieutenant Vincent D'Agosta (Tom Sizemore, Devil In A Blue Dress, Heat) believes that there may be a connection between the murder and a mysterious freighter boat from Brazil that was found abandoned in Lake Michigan with 70 decapitated crew members.

With the help of museum scientists Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller, Carlito's Way, The Freshman) and Dr. Frock (James Whitmore, The Shawshank Redemption), D'Agosta investigates the theory that mysterious, possibly non-human forces may be behind the murders. Intent on solving the mystery before anyone else gets hurt, he closes off the museum while his team of policemen search for clues in the dark tunnels under the museum. However, in a plot development shamelessly stolen from Jaws, D'Agosta is unable to keep the museum closed for its huge annual fund raising dinner, and soon all hell breaks lose as the creature rises from the bowels of the museum to seek out more victims to decapitate. (The Relic may hold the record for decapitations shown in a single picture.)

Despite the predictable plot and the obvious rip-offs from other movies and television shows (The Aliens trilogy, Jurassic Park, The X-Files, and even The Poseiden Adventure), The Relic is still devilishly enjoyable and suspenseful enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. Hyams, in the rare double position of director and cinematographer, has created a uniquely dark look and feel for the movie. The film is literally so dark that it probably had the lowest electricity budget of any film in recent history. The darkness makes the action much more realistic; you see exactly what the characters would be seeing in a dark room or tunnel with no light. By the end of the movie, your eyes are completely dilated and you feel as if you just spent a few hours in the labyrinth basement of a haunted house.

As usual, you have to wait until nearly the end of the film to get a good look at the creature itself. It is worth the wait, though, because you are rewarded with an extremely long final action sequence that gives you plenty of chances to enjoy the creature in its horrific splendor. Animatronics wizard Stan Winston (Jurassic Park, Aliens) teamed up with the computer graphics crew at VIFX (Broken Arrow, Jingle All The Way) to create an enormous genetic mutant that gives new meaning to the term "DNA gone bad."

I can say without hesitation that The Relic is the best movie of 1997. But maybe it's from the lack of competition (Turbulence, Jackie Chan's First Strike). Either way, if you are looking to watch a good suspense thriller, The Relic should satisfy your craving.