In Embryo (1976), director Ralph Nelson weirdly returned to a storyline he explored in the humanist sci-fi drama Charly (1968) – the tragedy of clinically implanted, ephemeral brilliance in the mind of a human – but he expanded the concept into the realm of genetic engineering on an embryonic level, but the results are clunky due to a clumsy plot and often deadly dull scenes.
Nelson had directed a fairly broad spectrum of genres, but he couldn’t quite grasp how to reveal and sustain horror when his instincts kept focusing on moral and intellectual arguments of a brilliant genetic engineer and widower grows a fetus into a learned woman within weeks. It’s a preposterous premise he never manages to make even marginally convincing because it presumes an adult can ‘grow’ in a giant test tube and acquire full speech and motor abilities; all it needs is some prodding by a patient doctor.
New human Victoria (Barbara Carrera) isn’t afraid of her benefactor Dr. Paul Holliston (Rock Hudson) at first sight, nor her reflection, nor sound, touch, food, or the big Dobermann she sees upon waking up from a medically-induced coma during which she’s been fed audio lessons in human history, language, and math.
Once Nelson bypasses that nonsense, the film starts to move along, and there are little portents of Victoria’s primal survival instincts that soon cause a murder, and lead up to the film’s surprisingly grim finale. Hudson’s presence in the film – and his final scene, where he shouts in outrage – eerily recalls his role of a man with a younger body in Seconds (1966), except in this instance the actor plays a creator and master manipulator rather than subject.
Like the eponymous character in Charly, Victoria becomes increasing brilliant, and aware of her own looming mortality, but her character is unintentionally schizophrenic: Nelson’s scene transitions are jarring when Victoria is seen writhing in pain from her rapid cellular degeneration, yet giddy and sociable once she’s taken Holliston’s chemical injection. There’s also a disconnect between Holliston’s sudden laissez-faire attitude to the point where he not only leaves her alone in the house, but free to drive (to drive?) his Caddie around town.
His lab is only a few floors above the living room and on the same level as the bedrooms, yet Victoria’s pain shrieks are never heard, and Holliston never notices the reduction of his chemical stock which Victoria’s been injecting like an addict.
Embryo may have succeeded if the script conceived by Jack Thomas (Francis of Assisi) and Anita Doohan (Whispers) had been reworked into a comic book sci-fi or more formal horror, but Nelson’s decision to keep things low-key rendered the film a dud. One can argue Holliston is too smitten with his creation to see what’s happening to his life and his own family, but he’s also a bit of an idiot, making it impossible to really sympathize for the character whatsoever.
Diamond Entertainment’s DVD is a classic case of a public domain film that’s been spat out on DVD using wretched source materials. Likely taken from an old full frame ¾” master, the main titles sprawl off the screen, and Gil Melle’s score jitters before the playback heads lock onto the tape’s control track. Artifacts and snow scatter the film, and in one low-angle shot, the boom mike pops in and out of frame.
Severe digital noise reduction creates ghosting effects in high-contrast shots, and there’s little evidence of Fred Koenenkamp’s skills as a brilliant cinematographer (although he would soon film Islands in the Stream for Franklin J. Schaffner a year later). Any low-level sounds distort the overall audio mix, and a crackling sound recurs throughout the film. Tepid text bios are the DVD’s sole extras, and the composer’s name is grossly misspelled.
Carrera’s career would blossom soon after Embryo – notably in the underrated The Island of Moreau (1977), Never Say Never Again (1983), and Dallas (1985-1986) – and co-star Diane Ladd would peak with Oscar-nominated roles in Wild at Heart (1990) and Rambling Rose (1991). Hudson’s career, however, was in a downswing. Embryo followed a 3-year absence from films, and his TV series McMillan and Wife was entering its final season. His remaining feature films were mediocre – Avalanche (1978), The Mirror Crack’d (1980), and The Ambassador (1984) – but there were a few intriguing TV productions, specifically the extremely odd sci-fi mini-series The Martian Chronicles (1980).
For character actor Jack Colvin (who plays Holliston’s wary colleague who supplies the fetus that develops into Victoria), he would begin a 5-year co-starring role as Jack McGee on TV’s The Incredible Hulk.
Director Nelson would direct one final feature film, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich (1978), before ending his career with a quartet of TV movies – the medium where he cut his teeth, directing live teleplays during the fifties.
Embryo was produced by schlockmeister Sandy Howard, who achieved some measure of critical success with A Man Called Horse in 1970, but in site of the rare creative success (Island of Dr. Moreau) most of his output included star-studded genre duds (The Neptune Factor, The Devil’s Rain, Meteor), cheap exploitation fodder, and several Canadian tax shelter film.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan