Embryo (1976)

Aside from great high profile work like the Exorcist, the 70s threatens to be eclipsed in the history of the horror film. It is remembered as the decade of slasher junk (the best of the sad field possibly being Halloween). Outshone by the pacesetting 30s, the lovable drive in schlock of the 50s, the emergence of Hammer style horror in the 60s and the flashy 80s (whose mature arrival was heralded by Alien in 1979), the 70s can really slip through the cracks. That’s a pity too. Films like Embryo and Sisters, which tried to disturb you at a primal level rather than simply shock, deserve their place among the gems of any decade.

Those who have seen this film generally relate that Carrera’s character in Embryo evolves into a murderous psycho, and they imply that is the crux of the thing. Her willingness to kill anybody in her way is certainly one of the sources of tension in the scenario. But when I saw this film for the first time yesterday, it struck me primarily as a tragedy. A double one at that…

Hudson and people he cares about deeply are threatened life and limb by Carrera’s Victoria. But this isn’t just another raging serial nut flick. One need only look at WHY she is killing. She is eliminating obstacles to the continuation of her existence. It’s not putting too fine a point on it to describe her as a woman fighting for her life as though she is drowning. –Survival. Dropped more abruptly than most of us into a world into which she never asked to be born– like Roy Batty in Blade Runner or the running, thinking clone in Simak’s classic short story Goodnight Mr. James– she learns that life, having once been tasted, is worth doing anything to hang on to.

Complicating matters is the way she came into being, skipping the first 24 years of life, subliminally endowed with a staggering encyclopedic breadth of knowledge while in the incubator. This leaves her lacking a crucial something: the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. If she needs it, it’s right to take it. If someone tries to stop her, they’re wrong. She really doesn’t know any better. That simple. As the story develops, to know her is to be in peril. It’s her furious drive to survive that will eventually cost her and several characters everything.

Hudson’s Dr. Holliston is compared to Dr. Frankenstein in this role, but he’s actually a pretty good guy. His intentions are essentially altruistic. We learn that his wife miscarried twice before his son was born, and he’s had an interest since then in research that could help miscarried infants survive. When he hits a dog at the beginning of the film, he plays a hunch and takes advantage of the moment to see if he can make the fetus within the dog survive. His success at this emboldens him to try it on a human. I wouldn’t even say temerity or even too much ambition is the doctor’s downfall. –Maybe just possessing a personal curiosity about life and death that the situation can’t bear.

Perhaps inevitably, the end of Embryo contains an echo of the stronger Hudson flick Seconds. But it still packs a wallop in its own right. Ralph Nelson also directed Lilies of the Field. If he is only a hired hand as a director, and not an auteur, he is a really deft story teller anyway. Newer viewers may complain about the effects, but they do all they really need to. The special effects are simple, kept in a secondary, supporting relationship to the story; doesn’t it seem silly, when you see a film like this, to think that things have become inverted to the point that it should ever be otherwise?