[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
Attention to detail is of the essence in a fantasy film. If fantasy is to have the desired effect, everything hinges on the viewer’s willingness to suspend disbelief and submit to the film’s premises wherever they may take him. But if every shot, every moment, every idea offers only new evidence as to how unlikely the proceedings are, no viewer will sit patient for long. Only the very best science fiction films escape the need to explain and justify themselves. But Ralph Nelson’s Embryo seeks to escape it through the back door, by disclaiming any affiliation with science fiction. An opening title assures us that this film is about the possible abuses of things which are already medical possibilities. The disclaimer might have some effect, were it not for Nelson’s inattention to detail, which repeatedly emphasizes the film’s hokiness to the total exclusion of whatever credibility the Thomas-Doohan screenplay might have had to begin with.
There is inherent promise in the story, essentially a retelling of the Frankenstein story in an atmosphere of contemporary technology. Rock Hudson is a genetic research scientist who, with his now-dead wife, developed a growth stimulant which might be applied to creating normal development and survival in foetuses prematurely separated from the womb. The chance to test the drug rouses the doctor from the period of depression he has entered following his wife’s death in an accident. After running over a pregnant Doberman he puts his lab to work in an effort to save her embryonic puppies. Successful with one of the pups, he then seeks to apply the same technique to a human foetus, in an idealistic effort to find a way of saving children normally lost through miscarriage and other premature separations of child from mother. So far so good; but then the devices go to work. The growth stimulant turns the Doberman embryo into an adult dog in a matter of hours; but people take longer to develop to adulthood, so Embryo has to posit that “something went wrong” with the drug when tested on a human foetus, causing it, too, to become an adult (specifically a 24-year-old woman) in a few hours. Further, this unspecified “something” causes the perfectly formed young woman to lapse into spasms of premature aging (which unaccountably give her stomach aches), arrested only by massive doses of the addictive drug the doctor uses as an antidote to the growth stimulant. The woman (he names her Victoria) becomes a latterday version of Colleen Gray in Edward Dein’s much better 1959 film The Leech Woman: she reaches the point where she must kill in order to retain her youth and beauty.
The illogicalities of the film are myriad. First of all, if you use something like a growth stimulant on a human embryo and speed its development to the point of a 24-year-old person, you’re going to get an infant the size of a 24-year-old, but hardly the same, perfectly developed shape as Barbara Carrera—whose legs (for example) got that way just like everybody else’s: from being walked on. This drug seems to have a number of odd side effects, in fact. Victoria acquires, during her prodigious development, a cute Spanish accent, even though Rock Hudson and the voice on the tapes which teach her to talk both speak perfect Americanese. She also acquires full facial makeup (but no clothing); and an incredible ability to learn rapidly from books without having any practical experience of reality herself, becoming an insufferable smartass into the bargain. Presumably it was also these unexpected side effects of the drug which enabled the Doberman, sometime during the few hours of its growth from puppy to adult, to get its ears docked and its tail cropped, as well as to undergo basic obedience training, without ever leaving the doctor’s incubator. That’s the kind of sloppy planning Ralph Nelson has put into Embryo from start to finish.
More’s the pity, because Joseph Alves’s interesting production design has given Embryo a fascinating ambience which capably fuses elements of the traditional Gothic with modern plasticity: a traffic accident on a dark, stormy night; secret experiments in laboratories hidden behind the innocuous façade of a rambling California-Spanish house; the progress from beast to human; the inherent terror of the staircase and attic; the opposition and ultimate fusion of water and fire. Materially, the production is all together. But literarily there is no logic of plot or event. And morally, Nelson hedges his bet the same way James Whale hedged his in the much superior 1931 Frankenstein: the doctor is charged with guilt for the disaster because he “tried to play God,” when in reality, according to the plot the director has accepted, the real blame lay in the fact that “something went wrong,” Fritz the dwarf brought the surgeon the wrong jar of brains. Ultimately, Nelson goes Whale’s parable of pride one better by having the doctor sleep with his creation. By the end of Embryo, Victoria, aged to about a hundred in a few moments’ time, goes into the throes not of death but of childbirth, bearing the doctor yet another un-person, presumably as prodigious and dangerous as she. Rock Hudson, who throughout seems a little chagrined at finding himself in this mess, screams, “No! No!” And well he might.
Direction: Ralph Nelson. Screenplay: Jack W. Thomas and Anita Doohan, after a story by Thomas. Cinematography: Fred Koenekamp. Production design: Joseph Alves. Editing: John A. Martinelli. Music: Gil Melle. Production: Albert H. Orgolini, Anita Doohan.
The players: Rock Hudson, Barbara Carrera, Diane Ladd, John Elerick, Anne Schedeen, Roddy McDowall, Vincent Baggetta, Ralph Nelson.
© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow