Wednesday 22 May 2013
A Fright At The Museum
1997 USA/UK/Germany/Japan/New Zealand
Directed by Peter Hyams
Universal DVD Region 2
Warning: Slight spoilers.
Wow. I hadn’t given this movie much thought in years... since I saw it back at the cinema in 1997 actually. Back then I’d gone away thinking I’d seen a pretty much half decent movie, but nothing too special. In fact, the reason why I decided to take advantage of HMV’s closing down sale and unearth this rare specimen again is because, earlier in the year, a proper CD version of John Debney’s score to this was released by La La Land Records and I liked the samples and ordered myself a copy (I’ve not got much Debney anyway and I always loved his gorgeous score to Cutthroat Island). So I thought I’d better remind myself of the movie again at some point if a cheap option of doing that became available.
Having seen it again, I am now in a position to be able to upgrade my original “meh” opinion a fair bit.
Based on a novel by Douglas J. Preston and Lincoln Child which was called, simply, Relic... this is one of those cases where the film rights are bought before the novel has even been published and then it’s forced to wait for release until the movie is out. Now I’ve not read the original novel as yet but, from what I can understand about it, I just can’t see why there was such a clamour to buy this thing when the studio obviously wanted to change so much of the basic characters and events and do their own thing instead.
For example, Relic is the first in a whole series of novels featuring Special Agent Aloysius X. L. Pendergast, who investigates strange things in what I can only assume is a series of stories written in The X Files manner. In the movie version, however, this main protagonist of the series is removed completely and some, but not all, of his character is combined with one of the other characters in the book... a character who is also quite badly misrepresented on screen, as far as I can tell, being that he’s extremely superstitious in the movie and quite the opposite in the original novel.
Never mind, though. Such, admittedly major, details as disappearing protagonists are not the be all and end all of the process of a good adaptation... I’m just not in a position to be able to tell you if this is a good adaptation or not. However, what I can tell you is that, although it’s cliché ridden, as a good old fashioned jump-scare horror yarn, this movie really does the trick.... building up the tension quite effectively as we wait to see if our two main protagonists detective Lt. Vincent D'Agosta and Dr. Margo Green (played by Tom Sizemore and Penelope Ann Miller respectively) are going to be bluntly decapitated by a man mutated into giant reptile creature and have the hypothalamus regions ripped out of their brains for food. Yeah, I know, It’s a B movie plot but the writers of the original novel are extremely well respected in their fields and I would still like to read both Relic and its direct sequel, Reliquary.
The basic strands of the story structure, at least in terms of the screen version of it, are fairly complicated to tie up in that you have to establish ways of having a police presence interested enough in a museum fund raising event to be there when things start to go wrong without actually cancelling it... which means political pressure to allow the museum to still run the event after several people have been found with their heads ripped off, either at the museum or on a boat that has connections to the museum itself in terms of a specific shipment. The director does this, mostly, quite deftly with me only raising my eyebrows a couple of times in response to some of the scenes... but it doesn’t detract too much from the visceral pleasures of the film’s ability to scare you when you least expect it to... and also when you most expect it to, to be fair.
Interestingly, there’s a nice inclusion in the movie which doesn’t, I’m think, come from the version of the story found in the book. When the “monster who was a man” comes to the US inside his packing case, the boat bringing the various bits of cargo back is found drifting somewhere not far from the central location. This makes for a scene where the crew on the boat are missing (although a lot of their blood is around and a lot of the crew turn up in various states of long dead goriness as the film progresses) and it becomes clear that something has been praying on them while it makes its passage to the USA. This, of course, is a direct parallel for Count Dracula’s voyage across from Transylvania to Whitby on the ship known as The Demeter and the sequences where Bram Stoker’s monster feeds off the crew inadvertently shipping him to England in his coffin. I’d like to think this was a specific reference and I was impressed with this little touch, if indeed it was the blatant referral I am giving them credit for.
There’s also a nice bit of what I’d like to think of as good natured stunt casting for a film which is, after all, primarily a large budget 1950s style monster movie, with the elderly, wheelchair bound Dr. Albert Frock being played by character actor James Whitmore. The character makes a good meal for the monster in this movie, being served up à la carte in his role... or should that be à la wheelchair... but I had to grin at this unfortunate turn of events. It was Whitmore himself, after all, who had played Sgt. Ben Peterson in the 1954 giant ant movie THEM!, so he should have been able to handle himself a little better, I feel, after hunting down all those giant ants in the tunnels at the end of that movie.
There are some strange little bits of business within the movie which don’t quite seem to make sense, though, which lets it down a little.
For example, a scene when two truant school children are locked in the museum one night and the last you see of them is where they corner themselves in the museum with the scary tell tale signs that they are about to be hunted to extinction by the movie’s prime special effect. There is no closure on this and you don’t see them again so the assumption is that they ended up as monster bait. However, I noticed a stray throwaway line spoken by one of the policemen later on that mentions “the kids who found that body the other night” and this seems to be at odds with any prior information we’ve been given. My guess is the two kids stayed around a bit longer in the original cut and that there’s probably footage of them finding a body and then finding a way out of their predicament. For some reason or another, either kids finding head ripped bodies being too gruesome or maybe the kids getting away from the monster not ratcheting the tension up (who knows), I reckon some footage was cut but there was no easy way to lose the later line in the edit... so they just left it in hoping nobody would notice. That’s my best guess on that one, anyway.
The other thing that really bothered me is that, throughout the movie for about two thirds of it, we keep cutting back to a museum technician who is painstakingly trying to restore a stone idol, presumably the “relic” of the title... however, once it is complete and some ominous music has played behind it, that’s the end of that. The relic in question seems to have no practical significance or interest, at least in the movie version, to the film called... um... The Relic. So I had no idea what was going on there then.
But, since I mentioned the ominous music... what about that score? Well, it’s really good, if derivative (although I don’t think the way it’s mixed in the movie as opposed to the album mix does it any favours). Derivative in the sense that, although both the composer and director are obviously admirers of the astonishing film scores of Jerry Goldsmith, the word homage is a bit of an understatement when it comes to the fact that this score seems, to me at least, to be very much John Debney’s version of Jerry Goldsmith’s ALIEN. Now that’s not an unusual thing for a lot of sci-fi and horror films post-1978 in all honesty, but this one is a very good tribute to the score... which means it’s very close and blatant in a lot of spots, it seems. Still, it serves the movie reasonably well (and would do a whole lot better if you could hear some of those mini stingers fading out properly within the mix) and it makes for a great listen away from the accompanying images too... so job well done on that one too Mr. Debney.
And that’s about it... despite its weak points, the acting and script are of a sufficient quality that the lack of characterisation filled in by psychological and emotional props are enough to invest the audience with a certain level of interest and that helps when you are supposed to be worrying about various characters ending up as hypothalamus appetisers. The jump scares are cheap and clichéd but no less effective because Hyams as a director definitely knows how to build up a certain level of suspense. This makes it not too terrible as a horror flick... asides, maybe, for the love it or hate it creature effects by movie magician Stan Winston. Personally I thought the monster could have done with being a lot more badly lit, so we couldn’t really see it. Still it’s certainly effective as a big bulky thing coming to eat you and if you have a love of 50s B movie monster science, then this very late entry into that genre should fulfil your needs very nicely. Just watch out for that first cat!