After some quite eerie credits featuring photographs of human embryos, we find Doctor Paul Holliston (Hudson) driving along a raining, storm-swept road. He hits a dog, a pregnant doberman. Taking the injured creature back to his laboratory to treat it, he recognizes his opportunity to test his theory of bringing embryos to an accelerated maturity with a special growth serum. If it works, he can save countless miscarriages – something he suffered many times with his deceased wife – and potential children of fatally injured mothers. His sister-in-law Martha (Diane Ladd) still lives in the house and helps him with his experiments, and Holliston also calls his son Gordon (John Elerick) to come and assist him with the experiment. Gordon has a pregnant wife Helen (Anne Schedeen).
Even though the injured mother dies, one of the embryos survives and is matured to an adult within days. Holliston covers up his success to Martha and Gordon and passes off the newly-grown dog, dubbed “Number One”, as the recovered mother. Number One proves extremely intelligent, almost at human levels. Holliston is so thrilled with his success that he convinces a reluctant medical friend to provide him with a fetus from an unknown pregnant woman who suicided. The experiment begins anew, and this time with startling results. The embryo, a girl, grows at an incredible rate and begins to age rapidly. Holliston finally arrests the deterioration at the girl’s age twenty-five, during which he had fed her knowledge and learning via tapes and recordings while she grew in the “womb”. While he rests, the women wakes up and approaches him. She walks pretty well for a new-born, but I guess it pays to not be too critical.
The ecstatic Holliston names her Victoria, as she is a victory for her and for him. Though initially mute, Victoria (Barbara Carrera) soon displays her intelligence and remembers her lessons in a matter of minutes. Victoria and Number One form a lasting bond throughout the movie. Her intellect is amazing but the question is, can she have developed morals as well? Keeping her hidden from prying eyes, Holliston continues her education, eventually introducing her to everyone he knows as his new research assistant, Victoria Spencer. Her intelligence is incredible and she soon becomes as much the scientist as Holliston. At a party she defeats chess champion Frank Riley (McDowell, playing furious well) and finally makes love to Holliston. Sadly, this is where things go bad. Victoria, soon after sex, doubles over in pain and find out her accelerated aging has started again. She has to start using the drug again that originally stopped the process, but it only works temporarily. For some reason, she doesn’t reveal this condition to Holliston.
As Holliston leaves for a conference, Victoria studies her condition more and discovers the only cure is an extract from the pituitary gland of a five-to-six month-old fetus. Under the pretext of “hiring” a pregnant prostitute, she drugs the woman and does a caesarian on her to get the fetus. Helen visits though, just trying to be sociable and helpful, and is drugged into unconsciousness by Victoria. Beforehand, she had drugged Martha to death as the older woman had been getting suspicious about her. Holliston finds out about her murder and races home, calling his son Gordon to meet him at his laboratory. There they find the dead prostitute and the desperate, haggard, bloodied Victoria, the extracted foetus in a tank, about to operate on Helen. In the ensuing struggle, Gordon is killed by Victoria, and, beginning to age into a withered crone, escapes and drives off, chased by a frantic, vengeful Paul Holliston, the man who “created” her. I won’t reveal the entire ending but it’s a bit of a surprise and perhaps could even have led to a sequel. Let’s just say having sex with someone, well, sometimes has its consequences …
Embryo does have its flaws. Rock Hudson’s performance wavers at times, wooden at some points, over-emoting (wait until you see the ending) at others. Still, the man can act, and I’d like to see his crowning achievement, the science-fiction thriller Seconds. I think this film taps into some basic biological urge we all have to grow and support life, which is more-or-less all Paul Holliston wants to do. He wants to nurture Victoria, and right the wrongs of his own past. And, at first, Victoria is a good person. Unfortunately when faced with her own death she decides to kill innocents to survive – probably perfectly logical, when you’ve only been around for a few days and don’t know any better. I really feel sad for her as played by Carrera, who has a beautiful, kind face and voice. As soon as she enjoys the pleasures of lovemaking, her life of happiness is taken away from her. Her desperate measures to live pits her against a man who seems to love her, who is at once a father and husband figure, and of course, society in general. Carrera’s performance lifts the film, it’s a pity she wasn’t – that I know of – in many movies that stretched her abilities. It’s an interesting shift in character that we have to endure with her.
The film’s soundtrack is also a point of interest. Eerie electronic music, as opposed to the usual soulful sounds of the seventies. Take a listen and you’ll see what I mean. It’s also funny how the memory plays tricks. I remembered poor Victoria as being nude practically throughout the movie, a la Mathilda May in Lifeforce. There was only a couple of nude scenes and they’re totally in context, so the sleaze factor isn’t that high in this one. I guess I was easily influenced back then with a smidgen of skin! I also wished that so many scenes weren’t filmed in the dark, some of them are quite hard to discern. Who knows, it was a bad DVD copy I was watching so that may improve with a better quality print. Overall, would I recommend to you viewers to watch Embryo? Well, a few conditions apply. You need to like the seventies aesthetic, be tolerant of some clunky plot points – like why won’t Victoria tell Paul of her plight, he’s a scientist and surely could help her – and some clunky acting. Put those aside and you’ve got quite a touching, melancholy piece of medical science-fiction and horror that may leave you with quite a bit to think about.
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