REVIEW: Embryo (2020)

dir. Patricio Valladares.

Opening with a stunning time-lapse of the night sky spinning overhead, radio chatter informs us that two tourists are missing and a suspicious couple are wanted in connection with their disappearance. The scene cuts to shaky-cam found footage of a woman apparently fleeing, before cutting again to intertitles explaining that Snowdevil Mountain “is considered the epicentre of extraterrestrial activity in Chile”, and that some believe aliens there have a plot to conceive a hybrid baby among us. We are, the titles warn, about to see three bizarre stories along this theme, before cutting again, this time to a hostage on his knees before a gunman, before one final cut takes us to a cityscape three days earlier.

The staccato nature of these opening moments gives a sense to the off-kilter mosaic of Valladares’ picture. Mixing numerous techniques – found-footage, drama coded as real-life, flashbacks and time jumps – the effect is disorientating and makes it difficult to locate a cohesive narrative. Comparisons with Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) perhaps capture the episodic presentation that something bad is happening, though there are frustrations in the obliqueness, and moments where the camera – perhaps in an effort to mask the budget – refuses to show what is happening at all.

There’s also a troubling seam of sexual violence. Although the plot is about the impregnation of unwilling female victims there is a lingering scene where a naked woman is found in the woods covered in what appears to be alien jism: a moment returned to unnecessarily later on. Similarly the mid-point focuses on another woman, semi-dressed and apparently writhing in orgasmic ecstasy after being assaulted. The positioning of the lens in these scenes feels uncomfortably exploitative, and though there is a literal male gaze (the first victim is discovered by her partner; the second filmed by her assailant) the film is uncritical and seems rather to revel in the violation.

Ultimately the final act does manage to tie together the disparate plot strands in a way that feels dramatically satisfying: it’s just a shame that the journey to the denouement was so scattergun and, at times, problematic.

Tim Coleman

EMBRYO has its World Premiere at the Arrow Video FrightFest Digital Edition 2 on 24th October 2020.

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