Friday, March 10, 2017

152. Embryo

152. Embryo (1976)
Director: Ralph Nelson
Writers: Anita Doohan and Jack W. Thomas from a story by Jack W. Thomas
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: archive.org (widescreen); archive.org (fullscreen)
A scientist working on synthetic growth hormone develops a fetus from 15-weeks to 25 years-old outside the womb over the course of a few days. When she wakes up, she may not be entirely good.
Happy St. Patrick's Day! Here's a movie with bloody fetuses!

Rock Hudson plays a scientist who hits a pregnant dog on his way home one night and experiments on her fetuses. He’s using a special serum to accelerate fetal development and the one surviving fetus grows to a full-sized dog in under a week. It’s hyper-smart and learns things immediately (and is also a source of great dog acting. When the movie gets bogged down, doggo spices it up). Having succeeded with the dog, Hudson decides to move to human fetuses, failing to notice his dog murder another dog and hide the body. Apparently the process makes you evil.

He gets a fetus from a suicide victim, uses his process, and the 15-week-old fetus develops to a living baby in under a day. Then it continues to grow until it’s developing at the rate of a year a day. Hudson manages to stop the growth when she’s roughly 24 years-old, and then counteracts the side-effect of rapid aging by dosing her with a highly-addictive drug. He names her Victoria.

Like the dog, Victoria learns things immediately which leads to a hilarious scene at a party where she basically owns a couple of mansplaining sapiosexuals, but that’s followed up by her asking Hudson to have sex with her because she wants “to learn.” It feels very father-daughter and, just, no. After sex, she has sharp pains in her abdomen and learns that the aging effect has started up again. She does some research and learns that the only cure is extract from the pineal gland of a 5-6 month-old fetus. She tries to get it from a pregnant prostitute, but the extraction fails. However, Hudson’s pregnant daughter-in-law shows up right then.

The final sequence, which is hilarious but not supposed to be, Hudson and his son fight Vitctoria over the extracted fetus, and everything goes wrong in the most soap-operay way. I don’t even want to go into any details because it’s so good and nothing in the movie up to that point suggests that things will take that turn.

While the conclusion is absolutely bonkers and there’s great dog acting throughout, it gets kind of bogged down in the middle. The flick is 105 minutes long and it doesn’t need to be. In fact, we need to see her start aging and turning to drastic measures much sooner. The movie goes into a holding pattern while Hudson is educating her and then picks up speed again at the party, but that’s also where all the sex stuff comes in which is not okay.

The reason it’s discomfiting is that nothing up to that point in the movie suggests it’s going to have that kind of content. Even when Victoria first emerges and Hudson finds her walking around, yes, she’s naked, but he doesn’t pause to look at her, the camera is shooting from far away, and her hair is strategically placed. Rather than being a scene of eroticism and titillation, it’s a scene of vulnerability and demonstrates Hudson’s impulse to protect and comfort her. The party guests’ sexual aggressiveness (and jealously from Hudson’s sister-in-law who I’ve completely left out of this) comes as a shock, but, arguably, our experience of being shocked by it is supposed to mirror her shock. She’s never spoken to anyone but Hudson. While smart and very well-read, she’s functionally innocent. Then someone comes up and tells her how fantastic their humping is going to be.

Rather than play that up as a corrupting world pushing her into moral compromises which make her decisions at the end easier or this being a spot for her to start showing the secret evil within her, she proves to be very adept at flirting and kind of on board with all of it. As, apparently, are the rest of the party guests who are aware of these guys being creepers and laugh it off. Then she goes home and screws, essentially, her father, so she can have a proper fucking. Gross.

One of the archive.org sources describes this as a “retelling of the Frankenstein story,” which is it, but I felt more echoes of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. This is mad scientist pulp done with a 70’s aesthetic (and morality), and that’s the movie that kept coming to mind while watching this. Even the very beginning which features Hudson hitting the dog while driving immediately make me think of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. Once Hudson learns the dog is pregnant, he calls his son to bring over lots of dog blood to keep the fetuses alive. The son brings his pregnant wife at her insistence and I was sure they were going to have an accident on the way over and her fetus would be the one they experiment on. While that doesn’t happen, they movie is not subtle with its foreshadowing, so you know something is going to happen to that fetus at some point. That it takes so long is really the movie’s failing.

Despite its flaws, or maybe because of them, the movie’s fun in a badfilm/seeing-is-believing way. It’s not quite entertaining on its own—it’s a slow burn at the start and then slows down even further in the middle—but it’s definitely riffable, especially when it goes into the sexual realm of wrong. There’s a real pleasure to be had in how much the film loses the audience at that point and just keeps going full-tilt until it crashes head-fist into the ending. That conclusion is such a delicious wreck. In that context, of laughing with friends, I’d recommend it.

This movie is in the public domain, but unfortunately Mill Creek vandalized my copy with their logo. There are two copies on the Internet Archive, one widescreen with better quality and one fullscreen that’s closer to what I saw. While the widescreen one is 4 minutes shorter, so something may be cut, and the text that appears at the start is in French for some reason, I’d still suggest that version. For your convenience, here is the text, in English:

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