Hey, I’m talking to you, Bill Van Ryn! You want a Groovy Doom Saturday Night Watch Party double feature, then you have to pair Tony Curtis’s and Rock Hudson’s forays into the horror/sci-fi genres with Manitou and Embryo. What were they thinking. What were their agents thinking. I know what their fans were thinking: what in the hell is this crap? Then, Rock had to two-fer the bombs with Avalanche (1978). Rock Hudson in a Roger Corman disaster flick? Yep, he did it. Then he upped the ante with a Star Wars dropping: The Martian Chronicles (1980).
Rock, Rock, Rock. What in God’s great creation! You were a heartthrob from the Golden Age of Hollywood and you did a six-season ratings-winning stint with NBC-TV’s McMillan & Wife, and you gave us the TV movie greats of World War III (1982) The Vegas Strip War (1984). I guess it’s true what they say: aging actors and washing out actors really do retreat to horror films for work (see Wanda Hendrix in One Minute Before Death, as one example).
Apparently, there was a deeper, philosophical meaning in behind Anita Doohan and Jack Thomas’s script (it served as Anita’s debut and Jack’s last) about a doctor dealing with the mental, emotional, and physical consequences of growing a human fetus in an artificial uterus. . . .
Hey, you know what Mr. Van Ryn? You could also pair Embryo with Fritz Weaver in Demon Seed, since both films deal with a fetus spawned in an artificial uterus — only Fritz picked a classic (in my world, anyway). But this Rock sci-fi romp . . . Oy! This isn’t Demon Seed: this is Bruce Dern splitting-heads in The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant — only that’s a trash classic and Bruce Dern was still AIP-drug-and-biker-flick Bruce Dern, so he gets a pass. And, in a twist: Dern’s ex-wife, Diane Ladd, stars here as Rock Hudson’s Dr. Paul Holliston’s sister-in-law/lab assistant.
Holliston is a geneticist who, after the death of his wife in a car crash, and the pangs of wanting her back, he begins tinkering with an experimental growth hormone made from human placental lactogen that not only shortens the gestation period . . . it speeds up an embryo’s growth. After successfully birthing a Doberman Pinscher from a pup he saved from a dog he ran over with his car, he decides to try the hormone on a human; he applies the technique to an unborn fetus from a suicide victim. The fetus quickly grows into a 22-year-old woman he names Victoria (Barbara Carrera) — who also becomes his lover. While she develops superior intelligence — as with Atom Age Vampire, Invasion of the Bee Girls and The Wasp Woman — Victoria begins to rapidly age and craves pituitary gland extract from human fetuses. Now a modernized vampire — in the vein (sorry) of Marilyn Chambers in Rabid — she murders a prostitute to steal her unborn child to suck out the needed nutrition. Unsuccessful in his murdering her in a car crash, the now elderly Victoria — to Holliston’s horror — gives birth to his child: a mad, screaming baby.
Embryo is an updated Frankenstein — with a smidgen of The Bride of Frankenstein. It’s a vampire tale — lacking a smidgen of fangs. And Rock certainly tries; he’s earnest in his attempt to make it all work. The class and style that William Friedkin brought to The Exorcist — which is this film’s inspiration and a quality Rock certainly thought he was getting — is absent. And that’s baffling when you consider Rock’s director was Ralph Nelson, who won multiple Oscars for Lillies of the Field (1963), Father Goose (1964), and Charly (1968). As with Stanley Donen, the co-director of Singing in the Rain (1952), being woefully out of his element with the Star Wars knockoff Saturn 3, a comedy and dramatic Oscar-winning director does not an Exorcist bid, make.
As with Rock’s fellow Golden Age of Hollywood compatriot, Kirk Douglas, himself an Academy Award and Golden Globe nominated and winning actor, expecting more from Stanley Donen, Rock ended up in another Trog: Joan Crawford’s attempt to expand her audience with a horror film. What Rock ended up in was a more expensive, complacently-crafted AIP film. But an AIP mad scientist film is still an AIP mad scientist film, cash flow and A-List stars, be damned. What Embryo desperately needed to push it over the top is one of the favorite lines of dialog of fellow B&S About Movies’ contributing writer, Jennifer Upton: “Herschell, what about the children?” from the crazed turkey-man movie Blood Freak (1972).
But there’s no crazy dialog and just a rabid dog. Nor a blood-craving turkey man. It’s all just turkey with no mayo and Rock committing proxy-incest with his petri-dished pseudo-daughter.
A Sandy Howard Production — the studio behind The Neptune Factor (1973), The Devil’s Rain (1975), and Terror Train (1980) — allowed Embryo to slip into the public domain. In addition to airing all this month on the national, retro-UHF channel COMET, you can have your own copy courtesy of Mill Creek’s B-Movie Blast 50-Film Pack. You can also stream it free-with-ads on Tubi TV.