EMBRYO (1976)

Synopsis:  On a rainy night, Dr Paul Holliston (Rock Hudson) strikes a pregnant dog with his car. He rushes the animal to the laboratory/operating theatre in his house, and tries to save its life with the help of his sister-in-law, Martha (Diane Ladd). It becomes clear that the mother dog will not survive, but Paul decides to try and save the puppies. He calls his son, Gordon (John Elerick), and asks him to bring some urgent medical supplies, then prepares the experimental life support system that he and his late wife, Nicole, perfected as part of their research into foetal development. When Gordon and his pregnant wife, Helen (Anne Schedeen), arrive with the supplies, they find that Paul has delivered the pups by Caesarean and put them on life support. Nevertheless, all but one die. As Gordon and Helen leave, Gordon remarks that this is the first time since his wife’s death that Paul has shown an interest in anything. Paul realises that the mother dog, which is still providing the surviving pup with a blood supply, will soon die. He decides to use an experimental growth hormone on the pup, and thus speed its development. The hormone, called “placental lactogen”, is astonishingly effective: when the mother dog dies, the pup is sufficiently advanced to survive on its own. Determining that the pup shows no signs of cellular defects, Paul recommences the placental lactogen treatment. In mere days, the pup achieves adult growth. It also displays an amazing intelligence and ability to learn. Paul then makes a fateful decision…. Visiting a colleague, Dr Jim Winston (Jack Colvin), Paul makes a startling request: a foetus of 12 to 14 weeks’ development, whose mother cannot survive, and which itself has no chance of survival outside the womb. Winston reluctantly agrees, and some weeks later notifies Paul of an attempted suicide. Before the girl dies, Winston has her unborn child transferred to a portable life support system. Taking the baby to his laboratory, Paul begins placental lactogen treatment. The baby, a girl, grows with remarkable speed, each day approximating a month’s development. At the appropriate time, the child is “born”, being removed from the life support system to a humidicrib. Worn out by his experience, Paul allows himself to sleep – then wakes to a frightening discovery: even though the treatment has been stopped, the child has continued to grow. She subsequently undergoes a year’s development during each day that passes and then, achieving adult growth, begins rapid and premature aging…. Keeping his subject sedated, Paul treats her with various DNA blocking agents, and finally succeeds in arresting the aging process. He then begins a process of “subconscious learning”, playing educational tapes to the unconscious young woman. Finally, exhausted, Paul collapses. He wakes some time later to find his “incubator” empty, and himself confronted by the outcome of his experiment….

Comments: You know, I’m used to being deserted by friends and family, when I force my taste in film upon them; that doesn’t bother me so much any more. But when I sat down to watch Embryo the other day, I suddenly found myself being deserted in a way that was far more disturbing. My sense of proportion was the first to go, and it took my capacity for constructive criticism with it. As you’d expect, my desire to be fair did stick around for a while, but eventually it started making its excuses too; while my suspension of disbelief not only walked out without a word of apology, it took my last beer with it. And then the next thing I knew, my sense of humour was standing in the doorway with its bags packed, announcing that it thinks we’ve been spending far too much time together lately….

My bad temper, however, wasn’t going anywhere; and as I sit now in front of my computer, suffering from both a headache induced by the idiocies of its screenplay, and muscle pain from 100 minutes of simultaneous eyebrow-lifting and eyeball-rolling, I find that I feel less like reviewing Embryo than I do like knocking it to the ground with a swift rabbit-killer, jumping on its back, pummelling its kidney region, then twisting its arm until it apologises for ever having been made. And then pummelling it a bit more, just for good measure. In short – what follows is a singularly humourless rant; and while I’m sorry for it, the bottom line is that some films are just too provoking to be laughed off.

My problem with Embryo isn’t simply that it is one of those films in which the depiction of “science” and “scientists” is wrong on almost every conceivable level. There are lots of films that fall into that category, after all, and a great many of them are enormously entertaining. My specific objection here is rather that this distorted representation is coupled with an attitude of unbelievable pomposity. The makers of Embryo seem to have believed sincerely that they were creating A Cautionary Tale For Our Times; too bad, then, that their desire to alert people to the dangers of certain lines of scientific experimentation didn’t encompass an equally fervent desire to tell them the truth. What we have in Embryo is the science fiction equivalent of warning children to get home before dark, or they’ll be caught by the three-headed troll that lives under the bridge. The bewildering thing is that director Ralph Nelson and writers Anita Doohan and Jack Thomas seem actually to have believed in their own troll: the solemnity and self-importance with which the film’s central premise is treated renders the entire project not merely ludicrous, but infuriating. The key-note for Embryo is struck at the very beginning: the film opens with a testimonial from one Dr Charles M. Brinkman III, who also acted as the project’s technical adviser, assuring the audience that what they will see is “not all science fiction”. (Ah, my friends! – beware of science fiction films that deny that’s what they are!) Dr Brinkman goes on to insist that the story is “based upon medical technology which currently exists” – and that “it could be a possibility – tomorrow – or today!” (You know – considering that the behaviour of the medicos who appear in this film is unethical in the extreme, you’d think real life doctors would want to distance themselves from it rather than laud its accuracy, wouldn’t you?) And if this isn’t enough to make the viewer aware that Embryo is a film with a major attitude problem, consider the moment during the scene in which Dr Paul Holliston makes his fateful decision to experiment upon a human foetus, when the camera suddenly pans to a reproduction of Michelangelo’s “The Creation Of Adam”. That single shot sums up almost everything that is wrong with this movie, and demonstrates that if I am guilty of taking the silly thing way too seriously (“if”!?), then I’m definitely not the only one.

The perverse thing about movie science is that the more impossible a particular  “discovery” is in real-world terms, whether it be an invention, or a treatment, or last-minute piece of re-wiring, then the more likely it is that the resident movie scientists will toss it together with a minimum of fuss. It is when the central idea in a science fiction film is vaguely feasible that everything seems to go horribly wrong – and the scientists are usually responsible for that, too. Embryo is a textbook example of this convention. In fact, the film is an amazing conglomerate of just about everything that makes me clutch my hair and howl with despair when watching science fiction. First up, have you ever noticed how nearly all movie scientists – the “good” ones, at any rate – become scientists in the first place, or go into a particular line of research, because of a personal trauma? (So much for being “unemotional”.) No-one ever seems to do it because they like science, or they’re good at it, or they think it’s worthwhile; there always has to be a “reason” – or in fact, an apology – for someone choosing that particular career. In this case, we learn that Nicole Holliston had difficulty in carrying a baby to term, and that she suffered several mid-pregnancy miscarriages before giving birth to her only child. Hence, the Hollistons went into foetal research; hence, too, Paul Holliston rationalises his unethical experiments by claiming that the children that he and Nicole lost “will live again”. These experiments are then facilitated by the fact that Holliston belongs – as did Nicole, before her death – to that strange sub-category most beloved of screenwriters, scientists who work out of their own basements. As I’ve argued previously, the rationale behind this custom seems to be both practical and evasive. In the first instance, a basement laboratory restricts the need for sets, props and extras, thus saving quite a lot of expense. However, the most pressing motive for the frequent recurrence of this unlikely scenario is certainly that self-employed scientists are freed from such plot inconveniences as their legal obligations to their employers, the demands of ethics committees, and the existence of colleagues who might not just stand quietly by as illicit experiments are being conducted. And Paul Holliston takes full advantage of the freedoms granted him by his screenwriters, behaving in a manner that I object to not only because of its unethical nature, but also because it is thoroughly idiotic.

And it is here that I part company with many of my fellow film-watchers – or so, at least, I judge from the number of times I’ve made similar complaints about a movie, and had my objections greeted with an impatient, “Oh, who cares?” Well, the short answer is, I do; and I hope that I am not alone, since my condemnation of films like Embryo is not so much due to their slanderous depiction of scientists, as it is to their dismal standard of writing. How can I convey to you just how improbable Paul Holliston’s behaviour in this film is? The best comparison that comes to mind is the spy-film supervillain, who captures the hero, tells him what his plan is and how it can be thwarted, straps him into a ridiculously complicated death-machine – and then walks away without bothering to see if it works. And while I’m aware that many films – action films in particular – have impossible things and improbable behaviour occurring on a regular basis (like my personal bugbear, the outrunning of explosions and fireballs), those films don’t usually pretend to be realistic; and nor do they have the gall to present their impossibilities in the form of a dire warning to mankind.

Many films flub the design of their scientists’ labs, but Embryo goes one step further, and provides the wrong sort of lab altogether. Paul and Nicole Holliston are supposed to have discovered their miraculous “growth hormone” in their basement lab, yet that lab is essentially an operating theatre, and has no facilities at all for conducting basic research. (Heck – there aren’t even any Conical Flasks Filled With Mysterious Coloured Fluids!) As the camera pans around, we see that all of the drugs and chemicals are sitting out at room temperature – including the placental lactogen, which presumably has been untouched since Nicole Holliston’s death. Upon reflection, the remarkable thing about Paul Holliston’s experiment is not that it goes wrong, but that it works at all! (Such biologically active substances should, if possible, be stored lyophilised, and either refrigerated or frozen. Working stocks should also be kept below 0oC, although they can be stored refrigerated, but generally not for longer than a week; nor should they ever be made up to such a large volume as we see here.) No information is provided about the placental lactogen, beyond some very basic chemistry (it’s got “disulphide bridges” – ooh, gosh!). We never learn, for instance, what species it is derived from, nor how it was derived: whether it is native, extracted from tissues, or recombinant, produced artificially using molecular techniques. In terms of two people working out of their own basement, both of these options are about equally unlikely. (Genentech, the first American company to employ recombinant DNA technology, was founded in 1976, the year Embryo was released; however, there is no indication in the screenplay that the writers were aware of the fact, or even that such technology existed.) When Paul Holliston carries the fatally injured dog into his laboratory in the opening sequence, we learn that he has the facilities for operating on the animal close to hand – a store of canine plasma, for example – which implies that the Hollistons were experimenting upon dogs (not a very likely choice of subject, by the way). Yet Paul’s decision to “try something new”, that is, treat the pup with placental lactogen, would suggest that they had not previously tested the factor on an animal at all, which makes his subsequent resolution to proceed directly to human testing even more brain-numbingly stupid than it appears at first glance – and that’s saying something. And if the Hollistons weren’t doing animal experiments, why, oh why is their lab set up for doing precisely that!? Questions, questions….

Animal experimentation is one of those ugly facts of life that films tend to shy away from – unless they want to use it as proof of how ee-vil a particular scientist is. (“Good” scientists, on the other hand, tend only to experiment on animals for the “right” reasons – as Paul Holliston does here. A still sillier example may be found in K-9000, in which the scientist-heroine conducts an incredibly expensive experiment – using government funds – in order to save the life of a terminally ill dog.) Indeed, Embryo’s screenplay suggests that Holliston had no intention of testing his experimental drug upon an animal at all until his hand was forced. This is ludicrous. No matter how one feels about the use of animals for scientific research (and I can tell you this – no-one likes it one little bit), the bottom line is, it is a legal requirement that any drug intended for human use must first undergo a full barrage of strictly defined in vivo experiments, to determine such things as possible side-effects, and the suitable dosage to employ. The data obtained from this work is then submitted for examination by an appropriate authority (the FDA, for example), which will decide whether or not there is reason to believe that the experimental drug could be of benefit to patients. A Phase I trial is then conducted, generally involving only a small number of subjects, in which the same questions are asked regarding dosage, route of administration, and side-effects. If successful, a broader Phase II trial will follow, which generally involves more patients and is geared towards investigating how well the experimental drug works in and of itself. If this, too, is successful, a further application must be made to the governing body, requesting that a Phase III trial be undertaken. This is usually a wide-ranging study intended to determine not just whether a drug works, but if it works better than those already available. It may also determine the effects of the new drug in combination with other treatments. Such trials are generally “randomised controlled”, that is, neither the patients nor the administering doctors are aware of which treatment regime an individual is undergoing until the conclusion of the trial, in order to prevent any experimental bias from creeping in. It is only when a new drug has passed all this stringent testing that it may be approved for production and medical application.

I’ve spelled out these scientific facts of life purely in order to underscore just how idiotic Paul Holliston’s behaviour in this film truly is – or perhaps it would be fairer to say, just how idiotic what the screenwriters ask the viewer to swallow is – and also to give you some indication of just how much trouble he is going to be in, once the news of his little “experiment” hits the fan. Holliston does indeed reflect briefly upon the “legal problems” he will ultimately have to face, but decides to go ahead anyway – even though the script gives us no real reason why he would, and one very good one why he wouldn’t! Along with Holliston’s remark about “something new”, the fact that he dubs the surviving puppy “Number One” (yep, you heard me – “Number One”!) indicates that this was indeed the first animal experiment conducted with placental lactogen. Yet despite that, and without bothering to determine whether his drug has any long-term side effects, Holliston immediately decides to experiment on a human foetus. Now, putting aside ethical considerations for the moment, certain questions still have to be asked. How does Holliston know that placental lactogen will even work on a human foetus? Some growth factors are indeed highly conserved, and work across species, granted, but others are very species-specific. And how did he know – how could he even guess – what dose of the drug to give the puppy in the first place? – and how could he possibly extrapolate the dosage from that given to a five-week-developed pup, to that appropriate for a fourteen-week-developed human? And if we accept all of this, what about the ease with which Holliston obtains the foetus!? This takes nothing more than one brief argument with a medical colleague (who is an administrator, mind you, not even a surgeon!), who effortlessly maintains the film’s credibility levels when he responds to Holliston’s startling request by saying, in essence, “That would be really, really wrong – but yeah, okay.”

Now, it may not sound like it here, but I do understand the “fiction” part of “science fiction”. Nevertheless, when I am presented with a scenario so divorced from reality and then asked to take it seriously, I have to draw the line. What maddens me about all of this is that the writers could still have had their film, without resorting to having their scientist behave so unbelievably. For instance--- Let’s suppose that Paul and Nicole Holliston did discover this remarkable hormone. They then conducted a broad range of animal experiments that confirmed that the factor was effective across species, and also determined the most appropriate doses to be administered with regard to body weight, stage of development, etc. Then, just as the Hollistons were about to publish their work and present their discovery for clinical trial in humans, Nicole died. Shattered, Paul temporarily gave up his work, and did not go ahead with the publishing of their results. Then, one night, a car accident occurred outside the Hollistons’ house, and a pregnant woman was fatally injured. Realising that he could not save the woman, but could give her baby a chance, Paul performed an emergency Caesarean and placed the foetus in his experimental life support system, treating it with a dose of placental lactogen calculated from his previous studies. He planned to contact the appropriate medical authorities as soon as the baby was in a condition to be moved, but then everything went wrong…. Out of fear of the consequences – and fascination with his accidental achievement – Paul decided to keep quiet about what he had done.

The sad thing is, it took me less than five minutes to come up with this alternative scenario which, if not exactly plausible, would have been at least more plausible, since it does away with Paul Holliston’s carefully taken decision to do something incredibly stupid. But then – I’m not a professional Hollywood screenwriter, am I?

Anyway--- Paul Holliston gets his foetus, and Paul Holliston conducts his experiment. It goes wrong, of course, and the baby continues to grow despite the withdrawal of the placental lactogen treatment, finally achieving full adult development. (There is not the slightest indication here that the writers have any grasp of the enormous input of energy that would be required for this process to occur, nor of how infinitely complex are the cellular interactions that make “growth” possible.) Then she begins to age…. Holliston arrests this process by treating the (now) woman with methotrexate, while at the same time worrying aloud (in a way that lets us know we’ll be returning to this point anon) about the drug’s “addictive properties”. (Methotrexate is referred to here as “a DNA blocking agent”; more specifically, it works as an anti-metabolite by blocking the action of dihydrofolate reductase, the enzyme required for producing the active form of folate, a B-group vitamin. Methotrexate is used in the treatment of a number of diseases, including cancer; and like most cancer drugs, it is dangerous because it affects normal cells as well as malignant ones. However, as far as I’m aware, it’s not addictive.) Shortly afterwards, Holliston finds that the “incubator” in which he has been keeping his subject (and where he got that from, we’re not privileged to know) is empty, and the next moment is confronted by a fully grown, surprisingly mobile, and completely naked young woman. At this point, Embryo takes an abrupt left turn, mutating from Frankenstein into Pygmalian as Holliston undertakes the education of his experimental subject. This version of the story ultimately goes rather further than George Bernard Shaw intended, however, when the young woman – dubbed “Victoria” – swans up to Holliston one night in a see-through negligee, announcing breathily that “I want to learn”. (The notion of sex is put into Victoria’s head when she is taken out in public for the first time, and a new acquaintance suggests that the two of them enjoy “a resoundingly good hump”. Don’t you miss the seventies?) At this point, Victoria is beautiful, brilliant and charming – so naturally, it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes.

Paul Holliston keeps the surviving, adult-sized puppy that he saves with the placental lactogen, passing it off to his family as the mother dog. The only side effect that he observes is the animal’s remarkable intelligence and capacity for learning – something conveyed via a series of not-exactly-impressive doggie tricks. The audience, however, is swiftly made aware that the “artificial” nature of the dog’s developmental has indeed had an undesirable side effect; that the animal is, in fact – ee-vil! This revelation comes when, having been ordered by Holliston to stay in the car, “Number One” gets out anyway (bad doggie!), attacks and kills an irritating yappy terrier (which was probably making fun of its name) – and then hides its victim’s body in the bushes, before getting back into the car. (Since this sequence plays like a cross between the “canine assassin” scene in A Fish Called Wanda, and the “Muffy, meet Adolph” scene in Ruthless People, it doesn’t exactly achieve its aim of striking terror in the heart of the viewer.) After this, we wait for a similar revelation with respect to Victoria, and sure enough, it comes – and the film takes yet another left-turn, finally playing out like an updated version of the German story of Alraune, in which a similarly “artificial” women is revealed to be a soulless monster dedicated to evil (which, since she is a woman, manifests itself almost entirely in sexual terms). As Paul Holliston teaches Victoria, he finds her to be “incredibly perceptive”, with “a mind like a sponge” and the ability to use “almost 100%” of her brain capacity. As the audience’s alarm bells begin to ring, a puzzled Victoria dismisses the Bible as “illogical”, an accusation which Holliston counters by making a claim for its “moral values”. “Moral values?” repeats Victoria blankly. Oh, dear, groans the audience. And yes, unfortunately it is so: Embryo is yet another of the endless stream of science fiction films that finds intelligence and morals to be mutually exclusive; Victoria is far too clever to be good as well.

Today, twenty-five years after the birth of the first IVF baby, it is rather too easy to overlook the fact that Embryo was probably inspired by genuine social concerns about the rapid developments that were taking place in the field of reproductive biology. Still, even allowing for these fears (which I rather doubt actually included the creation of “soulless monsters”), as a “dire warning” film Embryo is almost a complete failure, since it doesn’t even follow through on its own premise. Having completed the education of his protégé (or should that be progeny?), Holliston takes his personal Eliza out in public, introducing her around as his new “research assistant”. At first, Victoria is a smash-hit (there is one genuinely entertaining sequence in which she mops up the floor with a chauvinistic, egotistical chess-obsessive, played by a cameoing Roddy McDowall), except with one person: Paul Holliston’s sister-in-law, Martha. Martha is one of the film’s gaping plotholes. The screenplay is fatally uncertain whether she is hostile towards Paul because of her sister’s death (in a car accident, when he was driving), or whether she has designs on him herself; her attitude shifts from scene to scene. In either case, no adequate explanation is ever provided for why Martha should be living in the Holliston house – except that the story requires a third party to be present, just so we can all see how ee-vil Victoria really is. Having taken an instant dislike to Victoria, Martha proceeds to investigate her, quickly discovering that she is not who she and Holliston pretend. Furiously, Martha throws her knowledge in Holliston’s face – and Victoria, overhearing, resolves that Martha will not tell anyone else….

The problem with this scenario – and if someone as limited as myself could see it, then someone as intelligent as Victoria certainly should have – is that it doesn’t matter one iota what Martha knows. So what if Victoria’s a fraud? Who is Martha going to tell? And what harm could it do if she did? It isn’t as if Victoria had obtained employment with falsified qualifications, after all. To any outside observer, I imagine that the mostly likely interpretation of events would be that the recently-widowed Paul Holliston had found a gorgeous young woman to shack up with, and not yet being willing to go public with his relationship, decided to pass her off as something else. I say again, so what? But instead of reasoning this way, the super-smart Victoria immediately panics, and doesn’t just commit murder, but does so in a way that makes it screamingly obvious that she is the guilty party. As is so often the case, this film is predicated upon the assumption that there is nothing in the world dumber than a really intelligent person.

And it gets worse. Shortly after – indeed, immediately after – Holliston and Victoria become lovers, the girl discovers that she has begun again to undergo accelerated aging. Holliston has concealed nothing about her background, and so Victoria begins secretly to dose herself with methotrexate, quickly becoming, as she puts it, “a junkie”. (Told ya!) This treatment, however, is only temporarily successful; and soon the desperate, frightened woman is searching for an alternative….which she finds, thanks to one of those magic movie computers that know everything, whether they’ve been programmed to know it or not. (Product of its time, the computer also fills an entire room, and is noisier than heavy earth-moving equipment.) The antidote for Victoria’s condition is revealed to be an extract from the pituitary gland of “an unborn foetus, 5 to 6 months developed” – leading to scenes that, while not explicit, many viewers may well find quite distressing. (Personally, I was more upset by the dog scenes that open the film, but you know, that’s just me.) Again, the problem with all of this is that it does not necessarily reflect Victoria’s inherent ee-vil­-ness, but rather the girl’s understandable terror at confronting her own imminent death. Still more strangely, the screenplay makes quite it clear that Victoria does know that what she is doing is wrong – and also, given her subsequent choice of a victim, that while she may not grasp what “moral values” are, she is certainly capable of making moral judgements….

In attitude, Embryo resembles nothing so much as the Monogram and PRC “Mad Scientist” cheapies of the thirties and forties – although those films never had the barefaced nerve to demand, as Embryo certainly does, that anyone take them seriously. Under the circumstances, there isn’t much that the cast could do with the screenplay. Since he narrates as well as stars, the film is carried by Rock Hudson, who attacks the material with admirable gravity. He can’t make it believable, of course, but he does succeed in communicating Paul Holliston’s grief and loneliness – and guilt – following the death of his wife (the script does not give nearly enough weight to the backstory of the Hollistons’ marriage), and also his incredulous delight in the seeming miracle he has inadvertently wrought. As Victoria, Barbara Carrera tries hard, but I’m afraid she is rather more convincing as a tabula rasa than when attempting to convey “genius”. Her role also demanded of her a fair amount of nudity, but this is all so coy in nature – hair covering her breasts, hands conveniently clasped before her groin, and so on – that it ultimately becomes annoying. (It is also very noticeable that while educating Victoria, Holliston found no reason to introduce the girl to the concept of “the bra”.) Of the rest of the cast, only Diane Ladd as Martha gets any substantial screentime, and her character is so confused that ultimately, her contribution does the film no favours. Embryo may start out as science fiction, but towards the end it veers squarely into the realm of horror. It also sheds whatever little logic and credibility it possessed, becoming at last nothing more than a second-rate fright-film – and a thoroughly ridiculous one at that, piling melodramatic scene on top of melodramatic scene until---

Well, whaddya know? There’s my sense of humour, safely home again! And just in time, too, because the final scenes of Embryo are truly some of the silliest ever committed to celluloid, involving (in rapid succession) kidnapping, surgery by-the-book, multiple murder, a car chase, an attempted drowning, and an hysterical cry of, “Die! Die, damn you!!” – a line I bet you’ll find yourself quoting at the strangest times, after watching this film. And there’s something else, too, an absolutely unforgettable – and incalculably absurd – last-second surprise, which I wouldn’t spoil for worlds….

Footnote:  By the way – did you notice how right through this review, I kept saying foetus instead of embryo? That’s because the term embryo generally isn’t used past the seventh week of human gestation. That’s right: these experts gave their film the wrong title.