And You Call Yourself a AScientist!

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SEVERED TIES (1991)

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"All the wonderful things I could do with it! I could heal anything, from cancer to Alzheimer’s…. If I’d known what I’d really done, I’d’ve cut the damn thing off – if it would have let me…."
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Severed TiesDirector: Damon Santostefano

Starring: Billy Morrisette, Elke Sommer, Oliver Reed, Garrett Morris, Denise Wallace, Johnny Legend

Screenplay: John Nystrom and Henry Dominic, from a story by Damon Santostefano and David Casci

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Synopsis: Scientist Harrison Harrison (Billy Morrisette) recalls the events that put him in a wheelchair, starting with his confined childhood, the laboratory accident that killed his father, his mother’s cries of, "What have you done to him?"…. As an adult, Harrison begins a new experiment, first moving out of the way of the surveillance camera that watches him, and putting on jazz music to drown any noises. Upstairs, Helena Harrison (Elke Sommer) sees this on the camera in her bedroom, and sends Dr Hans Vaughan (Oliver Reed) to see what Harrison is doing. Working from a partially burnt set of lab notes, Harrison straps a strange, vicious lizard to a workbench and yanks off its tail. The tail thrashes violently, hitting Harrison in the face. He jerks back, releasing the lizard, which struggles free. At that moment, Vaughan enters the lab. Harrison yells at him to shut the door. Vaughan re-activates the metal sliding door, which traps and crushes the lizard to death. Vaughan apologises, telling Harrison that his hard work deserves a reward, perhaps "a day in the park". Harrison says simply that he doesn’t go out, that "Mother doesn’t think it’s safe". Harrison takes a blood sample from the dead lizard’s stump, adding it to his other reagents. He then wheels a human body from his cold room, taking a tissue sample from it with a laser and adding that as well. The mixture is placed into a "gene bonding" machine. The experiment seems successful until the computer detects an "unidentified organic matrix" and rejects the sample. Harrison turns angrily on Vaughan, complaining that his gene samples are defective. Vaughan promises him better corpses. That evening, Helena and Vaughan discuss their plans to sell Harrison’s results to Nordkem Pharmaceuticals. When Harrison baulks at this prospect, Helena reminds him that she has sacrificed everything to make his work possible. Feeling guilty, Harrison signs the contracts that Vaughan puts before him. Some blood from an undercooked piece of meat splashes onto the papers. Seeing this pattern of red on white, Harrison goes into a trance, remembering his father’s destruction of his own work. Coming to, Harrison rushes back to the lab, trying another experiment. This time, the computer reports "gene bonding successful". Laughing hysterically, Harrison collects a stream of fluid from the machine. Vaughan and Helena enter the lab. Vaughan takes the fluid from Harrison, telling him that his work and the lab now belong to Nordkem, and that they will test the "plasmid". Helena tells Harrison that she and Vaughan plan to marry. Harrison goes berserk, attacking Vaughan, who drops the plasmid. Harrison picks it up and runs for the door. Vaughan and Helena grab him, and in the struggle the automatic door is activated, severing Harrison’s right arm. Trapped, Vaughan and Helena can only watch as Harrison takes the plasmid and a syringe and staggers away. Escaping the house, and collapsing in a nearby derelict neighbourhood, Harrison injects his plasmid into the stump of his arm. Immediately, his flesh begins to grow and change, and a hideously reptilian "arm" grows from his shoulder. Initially this growth seems to have a mind of its own; it attacks Harrison. Then it undergoes a metamorphosis into a seemingly normal human arm. The next morning, Harrison is cornered by a homeless man, Stripes (Garrett Morris), who takes the plasmid from him, telling him he saw what happened the night before and pointing to his own wooden leg. Stripes takes Harrison to the sewer system beneath the local prison, where a colony of homeless people is under the domination of a psychotic religious fanatic, Preach (Johnny Legend). Preach threatens a mute girl (Denise Wallace), and Harrison’s arm attacks him of its own accord. When Preach pulls a knife, the arm suddenly detaches from Harrison’s shoulder, proving to be a snake-like creature with a hand at one end. As Harrison watches in stunned horror, the "arm" throws itself at Preach, tearing off his face….

Comments: I hesitated before writing the first half of this review of Severed Ties, since the film is so amazingly stupid that treating it with any kind of seriousness grants it a degree of credibility that it really doesn’t deserve. Still, there are certain aspects of the story that seem to me to warrant a closer inspection – and all the more so since I’m not convinced that the film-makers entirely realised the implications of what they were saying. And so, girding up my critical loins (or to put it more accurately, reminding myself that I took both It’s Alive and The Brain From Planet Arous seriously, so what the hell?), I will now take a few moments to point out the troubling undertones that lurk beneath this decidedly silly story. Severed Ties is, of course, the story of a mad scientist. However, Harrison Harrison isn’t just mad because he’s mad (or mad because he’s a scientist, whichever you prefer), but rather was driven so by his treatment at the hands of his mother. We learn that as a child, Harrison witnessed the violent death of his scientist-father; and that since that time has been all but a prisoner in his parents’ house, rarely emerging from the basement laboratory. It is further inferred that Helena Harrison murdered her husband; and that as her son grew to manhood, she began to develop – and possibly act upon – an incestuous desire for him. Thus, mad as Harrison undoubtedly is, he is not truly the villain of the piece. That "honour" goes to Helena, who is clearly crazier than her offspring – which is where the film begins to run into trouble. A nasty racial thread runs throughout Severed Ties. Harrison may be mad because he’s a scientist, but it seems that Helena is mad because she’s German. This inference deepens with the presence in the story’s background of the pharmaceutical company, Nordkem. We do not see the head of this organisation, "Herr Heinkel", but his hysterical Teutonic ranting comes down the phone-line at regular intervals. Just in case we don’t get that "German = bad", we are later introduced to two of Nordkem’s scientists, Lawrence and Uta, who are grim-faced, humourless, automaton-like and incapable of anything beyond "following orders". Unsurprisingly, they both meet gruesome ends. And if these characters are overtly German, Oliver Reed, in full psycho mode, is covertly so, playing "Hans Vaughan". The final straw is the "revelation" of Nordkem’s history. When Harrison hears who his research is being sold to, he reacts with horror. "They marketed Thalidomide! They invented chemical warfare!" This plot thread is as offensive as it is ridiculous, as once again we are subjected to the infuriating cinematic convention of history being re-written for no more serious purpose than convincing the film’s (apparently thick-skulled) audience that the bad guys are Very Very Bad Indeed. Ugly as all this it, it merely forms the background to the most disturbing aspect of the film, Harrison’s plans for his miracle solution. While his expressed desire is to do what his father planned, and make the solution available to all who need it, to "alleviate human suffering", to "treat cancer and Alzheimer’s", as the story progresses a more sinister motive begins to emerge. Our first intimation of this comes when Harrison complains about his tissue donor – a body obtained from a prison – who was a serial killer. It is because of this, he insists, that his "gene samples" are "defective". Later on, Harrison refers to the homeless people – who have taken him in and sheltered him, and who ultimately lose their lives because of him – as "a bunch of genetic defectives" and speaks enthusiastically of "curing them". Curing them? Of what, precisely? Poverty? Homelessness? Having Harrison treat these street people as "inferior", even as "diseased" or "defective", may be the screenwriters’ way of demonstrating that he is as genuinely mad (or at least genuinely German) as Helena, but there is a disturbing lack of context or editorialisation here: there is simply not enough distance put between the character’s opinions and those of the film-makers. We can give John Nystrom and Henry Dominic the benefit of the doubt, I guess, but you do have to wonder if they realised to what extent their screenplay seems to sanction the distinctly Nazi-esque practice of eugenics.

And then, of course, there is Severed Ties’ depiction of science. Let’s be clear about this at the outset: what we have here is not science, nor even (bowing in the direction of The Enigmatic Apostic) science (!), but merely "science". In my review of The Andromeda Strain, I discussed the depiction of science in the cinema, pointing out how very few films seemed to have any interest in being even remotely realistic. In fairness, I should probably point out that, in this respect, the cinema is not the only culprit. We shouldn’t forget that, in what can be considered the first true science fiction novel, Mary Shelley chose to dodge the issue of just how her mad scientist made his Creature, reporting primly that, "I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet." (In a more recent, "real world" example, a news crew that visited my lab several weeks ago to film a report on our research insisted on rearranging the lab before they began shooting, complaining that it didn’t look "science-y enough". I assume it was the total absence of Conical Flasks Filled With Mysterious Coloured Fluids that bothered them.) Severed Ties goes from one extreme to the other with its "science", making a laudable effort to update the laboratory setting and sprinkling the screenplay with modern terminology – and then presenting us with "science" so utterly ludicrous that we conceive a new respect for Shelley’s decision to skip lightly over what she couldn’t explain. First of all, Harrison is yet another example of moviedom’s most cherished scientific misconception: the scientist who works exclusively out of his own basement. This convention also had its origins in the novel "Frankenstein", of course, and over the decades, science fiction writers have clung to it with astonishing tenacity. Whether the attraction lies in the reduced need for sets/props/extras, or in the assumption that an independent scientist is not subject to any kind of ethical restraint, is difficult to say. (Mind you, I can’t think of too many movie scientists shown working within organisations who seem particularly concerned with that "ethics" stuff, either.) Harrison Harrison, however, goes most of his colleagues one better by having been raised in his laboratory, and becoming a "brilliant scientist" without any kind of formal education or training. Working from the burnt remnants of the experimental notes of his father (who we see in flashback trashing his lab and work la Andre Delambre in The Fly), Harrison is on the verge of developing a means of regenerating human flesh that, whether by disease or accident, has been damaged in some way. So far, so good. Our first intimation that everything is about to go horribly wrong comes with Harrison’s first line of "science" dialogue: "Lygase the enzyme!" To which I can only say – eh?

It gets better. To a small amount of Mysterious Coloured Fluid (which is, naturally, in a Conical Flask), Harrison adds a scraping from a petri dish (I think this is meant to be a bacterial culture, which is evidence that the screenwriters at least opened a textbook, even if they didn’t entirely understand what was in there), some blood from the tail stump of the dead lizard, and a plug of brain tissue extracted from the dead serial killer. (Throughout this process, Oliver Reed keeps up a commentary, presumably for the benefit of the [*cough*] "scientifically illiterate" audience. When Harrison takes the lizard’s blood, Ollie remarks, "Extracting the reptile’s genetic material!" No, he isn’t: he’s taking a goddamn blood sample! And similarly of the brain tissue: "And now the human gene sample!" Wrong again, Ollie!) Needless to say, the actual amount of each of these components used is completely arbitrary, which compels me to ask the following question: has anyone out there ever, ever, seen a movie scientist actually weigh or measure his reagents?? (And they wonder why their experiments go haywire!?) Harrison swirls his ingredients together and places the mixture in his "gene bonder". The machine makes noises and flashes lights (what would a piece of "scientific equipment" be without noises and flashing lights?), and after about thirty seconds emits a stream of liquid into a second conical flask – a solution that Harrison repeatedly refers to as "the plasmid".

Okay, hold it right there. Time for Science With Liz.

A plasmid is a circular piece of DNA into which other pieces of DNA (e.g. specific genes) can be inserted (by using enzymes and lygases, not by "lygasing the enzyme"!). The plasmid is then used as a vector to transmit that foreign DNA into the genetic material of other cells, in order to, for instance, make them produce proteins they wouldn’t normally make, or to confer resistance against antibiotics.

Now, I assume that Harrison’s "plasmid" is a vector containing the tissue regenerating genes from the lizard, which have somehow been humanised, or at least "bonded" with human DNA, and which when injected into damaged tissue, will confer regenerative powers upon that tissue. Okay, I’ll allow that; it’s actually a very interesting concept. (It wouldn’t work, but that’s neither here nor there.) What I’m interested in, however, is the making of the "plasmid". As far as I can tell, Harrison’s "gene bonding" machine has the ability to take biological material in its crudest form, extract and purify the DNA, isolate the appropriate genes, "bond" them, insert them into vectors at the correct point and in the correct orientation, and produce a large-scale, purified culture of the plasmid – and all within the space of thirty seconds!! Man, oh man, oh man!! I want that baby! Even more than I want the instantaneous "DNA Analyser" in The Relic!!

Now, all this is interesting, in an intensely far-fetched kind of way. However, mixed in with it is the one thing that, above all others, makes me furiously angry when I watch a science fiction film; that makes me want to scream bloody murder even more than scientists not bothering to measure their reagents does – no-one ever handles biological materials under sterile conditions!! Do screenwriters not understand this necessity? Or do they just not care? I don’t know. I do know, however, that Severed Ties takes this point to farcical extremes. Having fled his life-long home and taken refuge in the sewer system, Harrison decides to make more "plasmid" (so he can "cure" his "genetically defective" friends, remember?). But of course, to do this he needs his "gene bonding" machine. No problem – he just builds another one out of an abandoned still. And it works perfectly. Sigh….

Okay, enough with the science – or rather, "science". This is supposed to be about body parts run amuck, right? Right! Harrison’s first attempt at "gene bonding" is a failure, but after suffering a Marnie-like trance (red on white), he has a mental image of his father’s worknotes, and realises the mistake he’s been making: he needs to add [*drumroll*] – lysine! (The film’s faith in the mystical powers of this humble amino acid is truly touching.) At the second attempt, the "gene bonding" is successful. Cackling and rolling his eyes, Harrison collects the gooey stream of "plasmid" produced by the "gene bonder". His triumph is short-lived, however, as Hans Vaughan relieves him of it, telling him that the plasmid and the lab now belong to Nordkem. This precipitates a struggle for the solution that ends with Harrison getting his right arm severed at the shoulder. He is not, however, about to let that stop him. What follows is a scene that almost – almost – rivals the one in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, wherein Leslie Daniels has his arm ripped off, and then staggers around the house for about ten minutes, painting all the walls with his blood before finally collapsing. Harrison, too, shows astonishing stamina, stopping to collect the plasmid and a syringe before fleeing the house (unwisely turning his back to the camera – is that an arm under your lab coat, or are you just pleased to see me?), forcing his way through a gap in the surrounding wire fence, running through the woods, and taking refuge in a derelict neighbourhood. (Loss of blood? Pooh!) Once there, he injects his plasmid directly into his bloody stump, and before you can say "He tampered in God’s domain!" the fun begins. A scaly reptilian arm shoots forth from the injection site, and immediately starts attacking its "owner", bringing back memories of (again) Al Hedison’s struggles in The Fly, Michael Caine’s even stupider ones in The Hand, and (may the Film Gods forgive me for mentioning them in the same breath!) Peter Sellers’ difficulties in Dr Strangelove. A moment later, the arm mutates into human form, and the equally terrified and triumphant Harrison starts reflecting on all the wondrous things he will be able to do with his plasmid.

But – surprise! – things go wrong almost immediately. A one-legged homeless man called "Stripes" has seen Harrison’s doings, and relieves him of the plasmid. The two form an uneasy alliance, and Stripes takes Harrison to a hideout beneath the local prison. In an indulgent sequence that goes on way too long, we are introduced to the other homeless people and to "Preach", the fanatic who rules them. When Preach attacks the mute girl, Harrison’s arm intervenes of its own accord. The psychotic Preach pulls a knife, and that’s when things get really interesting, as The Arm – normal arm to the elbow, then a long, snake-like (or lizard tail-like) segment - detaches itself from Harrison’s shoulder and kills Preach by tearing his face off.

At this point, Severed Ties stopped being merely stupid and became entertainingly stupid. I’ll be honest – I loved The Arm! (and later, Arms). Never mind Bubo The Ghastly Metal Owl [Bubo must DIE!!] – it was the sight of The Arm, scuttling about doing nefarious deeds, or looping itself affectionately around Harrison’s neck, that reduced me to squealing helplessly, "I WANT ONE! I WANT ONE!" The "arm" effects are, in fact, extremely well realised throughout, and are easily the best thing about the movie.

Harrison then sets his new friends (the homeless people, that is) to work converting the filthy, makeshift still into an elaborate piece of scientific equipment. Before he can make more plasmid, however, he needs more reagents. (Lysine! Can’t do "science" without lysine!) At this point, the mute girl appears wearing a remarkably becoming dress (and looking even more remarkably clean and healthy – but then, all of the homeless people are rather too hale and hearty), and making goo-goo eyes at her "hero". Harrison goo-goos back, dubs her "Eve", then asks her to go on a mission for him. She is to take The Arm to his house, so that it can collect the necessary materials. We then learn that Harrison and The Arm are in psychic contact – "It knows what I know" – which I guess I’ll allow. (However, the fact that it can see is rather more problematical.) Eve takes The Arm to the house, where Helena and Hans Vaughan are dividing their time between stalling the apoplectic "Herr Heinkel", and trying to reproduce Harrison’s results on their own. The Arm collects the reagents, stops briefly to sabotage the equipment Vaughan is using, then makes a dash for freedom, leaving the pair staring after it in blank astonishment. (There is an unforgettable moment when Vaughan touches some chemical spilled by The Arm to the tip of his tongue and announces, "This is lysine!" Hee, hee!) Back underground, Harrison uses his converted still to produce more plasmid. (Jeez, I hope Robin Batterham doesn’t see this film! He’s already advocating that Australian scientists raise their own research funds, rather than rely upon government funding. If he sees this, he’ll want us building our own equipment, too!) Harrison’s first guinea-pig is Stripes. Explaining that his previous mistake was not using the subject’s own tissues, Harrison takes a "sample" from Stripes’ stump, using somewhat rough and ready methods. This sample goes through the Still-O-Matic, the result is injected, and after some swift mutating (the "leg" looks first like the "chest-burster" alien, then like the dog-monster in The Thing), a normal leg appears – and it stays that way! That’s right, folks: Harrison Harrison, mad scientist or not, has succeeded in his aim. He has produced something that can regenerate lost limbs, and may indeed be able to cure "cancer and Alzheimer’s". But alas! It comes as no surprise that this fact proves to have no bearing at all on the rest of the story. Funny thing about science fiction films – no-one’s ever interested in successful science, only the spectacular failures. I guess good news is no news….

Harrison and his friends are celebrating his triumph when Helena and Vaughan, following a tip-off, invade his refuge. The Arm tries to strangle Vaughan but Helena manages to "kill" it by shooting its fingers off. (Eh?) Using Eve as a hostage, Helena and Vaughan steal Harrison’s new batch of plasmid and make their escape. Having lost his invention, his girl and his Arm, Harrison goes completely nutso. Making a new batch of reagent out of Preach’s torn-off face, he injects the mixture into The Arm’s finger stumps, from each of which emerges another complete arm creature. These new Arms are as homicidally psychotic as Preach himself was, and go on the rampage before Harrison can stop them, slaughtering and feeding upon (I repeat – eh?) all of the street people but Stripes, who is being dangled from the rafters by two of them and menaced by a third when Harrison finds him. Harrison reasserts his control over the creatures, and takes his "Army" (the film’s shooting title, BTW) to the house, loosing them on Helena, Vaughan, and the invading Nordkem scientists.

I won’t tell you how the film ends. I will tell you that the final sequence is surreal, gruesome and unexpectedly effective, almost redeeming the stupidity of what has gone before. The ultimate payoff even made me forgive the film’s tasteless incest subplot. Severed Ties is an incredibly silly film, of course, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously (boy, am I ever getting sick of saying that about modern genre films!). If nothing else about it grabs you ("grabs", geddit? geddit?), you can at least amuse yourself spotting its myriad references to other science fiction and horror films. For one thing, Billy Morrisette’s perforance as Harrison is all too clearly modelled upon Jeffrey Combs’ Herbert West in Re-Animator. There are a string of references to The Fly, Alien, The Evil Dead, and even – in the Good Arm/Bad Arm mutation – Gremlins (the killing of one of the Bad Arms in a garbage disposal unit also echoes that film’s "blender" scene). The performances are all completely over the top, but only Johnny Legend becomes intolerable. Garrett Morris has a few funny moments as Stripes. The special effects, coutesy of KNB, are imaginatively used and convincing, and deserve to be in a better movie. In the end, Severed Ties is an entirely typical modern SF/horror film, with an interesting concept given token consideration, then being tossed away in favour of gore effects and/or alleged "comedy". I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find this trend increasingly dispiriting. Dammit, isn’t there anyone out there interested in making real science fiction? Ah, well….let’s look on the bright side, such as it is. As I said before, I really do love The Arm! Think about it! A pet/companion that can scratch that annoying spot in the middle of your back, go to the fridge and get you a beer, do housework, write reviews for you when you don’t really feel like it…. Um - excuse me, will you? I just have to slip down into the basement for a while….

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