Progeny (1998)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2020-10-14 00:07

Written by: Stuart Gordon and Aubrey Solomon
Directed by: Brian Yuzna
Starring: Arnold Vosloo, Jillian McWhirter, and Brad Dourif

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

ďWhy would they do this?"
"I don't know. Who can know? What do you figure animals think about when we experiment on them?"

Now that weíre prone to romanticizing the video store era, we tend to overlook some of the downsides, going so far as to romanticize those things, too. For example, we all like to joke now about misleading box art enticing us to rent a title that wound up being a letdown at best. At worst, these box arts were downright misleading, promising one thing but delivering something else altogether. In hindsight, kind of funny! But at the time, it was a total bummer when it meant you basically wasted prime weekend rental real estate on a dud. Itís not like we had the option of just shutting it off and immediately browsing for another title like we can today. No, back then, you were stuck with your bad decisions until you could return to the store and get a do-over, usually a whole damn week later.

Which brings us to Progeny, a late-90s Brian Yuzna/Stuart Gordon collaboration that probably ruined more than a few weekends. Between this duoís reputation, the presence of effects maestro Screaming Mad George, and artwork promising a mutant baby in a jar, it seems to promise an outrageous Friday night, full of nonsense and bad taste, which is pretty much exactly how I like to spend Ďem. But thatís not what Progeny is, not really: instead of an unrepentant schlockfest looking to capitalize on the eraís preoccupation with extraterrestrials, itís more a psychological thriller that just happens to involve a possible alien insemination.

The alleged insemination takes place on an innocuous night of lovemaking for Dr. Craig Burton (Arnold Vosloo) and his wife Sherry (Jillian McWhirter). It was apparently a marathon 2-hour session, which should have been memorable; instead, neither of them can account for the two hours they lost boning the night away. With the help of a therapist (Lindsay Crouse), Craig starts to piece together the events of that night, as his brain stitches together fleeting glimpses of strange lights emanating from the night sky. When he stumbles upon the research of UFOlogist Bert Clavell (Brad Dourif), a chill shoots up his spine when he realizes others have shared his experience of blacking out during sex. So when Sherry enthusiastically reveals sheís pregnant, heís the first man in recorded history who canít share in the exuberance of knocking up his wife after keeping it up for two hours because heís pretty sure the child wonít be his. Everyone--including his own wife--assumes heís losing his mind, which only sends him further down the conspiratorial rabbit hole when he calls in Clavell for advice.

Thereís the version of Progeny that you think youíre getting out of all of this: a paranoiac thriller that eventually dovetails into a gnarly monster movie, with a mutant child wreaking havoc. Itís Alive, only [extreme Giorgio A. Tsoukalos voice] itís aliens. But what you get from the premise is, well, the premise. Thatís it, thatís the movie: Craig spends pretty much the entirety of the movie trying to convince anyone whoíll listen that aliens have impregnated his wife. As you might expect, it doesnít go very well: Sherry winds up under the watchful eye of medical specialists as she, too, starts to piece together whatís happened to her. Regressive hypnosis treatments slowly unpack the truth and deliver the on-screen shocks audiences might expect from Progeny, but theyíre very much just the icing and not the cake here.

And, unfortunately, the cake itself isnít even that tasty. Even when you make peace that Progeny isnít going to be much of a monster movie at all, itís disheartening to discover that Yuzna could be at the helm of something so flat and dull. If youíre going to spin a drama out of your alien insemination movie, it had better come strong with compelling performances and some genuine narrative intrigue, but Progeny doesnít have much of either. Considering the cast, this is especially disappointing: Vosloo and Sherry just never quite click, and Dourif isnít really unleashed in a way youíd like to see whenever youíre dealing with Brad Dourif in a movie about alien abductions. None of them are altogether bad: just slightly stilted, and the whole thing just has a little bit of a chintzy air to it. Basically, itís stuff youíd forgive if it were part of an otherwise gonzo monster movie, but since it doesnít offer you much in the way of that, you canít overlook that the main thrust of the movie is just a snooze.

Being a Gordon/Yuzna joint, itís not without some interesting scraps, of course. Almost all of them involve the alien menace that may or may not be tormenting this couple. Thereís an ultrasound that goes very haywire when the fetus looks unnatural and causes an absolute freakout that literally gives Sherryís gynecologist (Wilford Brimley) a heart attack. At one point, Sherry tears a placental mass right from her own vagina in a legitimately gross scene that winds up being a dream because Progeny is the type of movie that likes to tease and not deliver. Of course, thereís an abduction sequence thatís some real Fire in the Sky shit, complete with a cadre of aliens looming over Sherry, conducting some kind of mysterious procedure. I dig the look of the creatures too: I actually have mad respect for anything that actually uses the typical Gray Alien design, no matter how familiar it may be. Progeny does something a little different with it, too, imagining them as phantasmal creatures to enhance their nightmarish quality. It must have been a priority to give Screaming Mad George a sandbox to come up with a variety of designs and gags because the extraterrestrials subtly shift in appearance, perhaps indicating that Craig and Sherryís memories canít be trusted.

Because thatís where Progeny mostly dwells: in the psychology of alleged abduction victims who may or may not have had their minds completely scrambled. Itís admirable that Gordon and Yuzna would take this kind of approach instead of just wheeling out another dime-a-dozen alien vomit-show, but it doesnít quite work since they donít fully commit to the ambiguity. Throughout the film, thereís a lot of weird shit that winds up being nightmares, hallucinations, or glimpses of a possible future that weíre apparently meant to speculate about until the filmís final shot confirms things one way or the other, so Progeny canít settle through ambiguity, either. As such, youíre left with the feeling that itís all prelude and no payoff; itís the rare movie that ends just when you think the story is actually about to kick in. The filmís big money shot involves finally getting a glimpse at the monstrous thing growing inside of Sherry; itís appropriately grotesque and presumably more than capable of causing some unhinged carnage...and then Progeny ends about three minutes later, leaving you to imagine an entirely different movie altogether.

I know, itís not fair to hold an actual movie up to the one you imagine in your own mind. But damnit, Progeny didnít help its own cause by arriving in a box that promised a mutant baby being confined in a jar labelled ďpure evil.Ē Okay, fine, nobody involved with the actual production of the movie can be blamed for the decision to market this as a knock-off of The Kindred, either. Then again, I guess selling it as a killer mutant alien baby schlockfest is easier than selling a psychological drama about the shattered psyche of a husband and wife reckoning with the birth of their possible alien fetus. Either way, I hope the bait-and-switch didnít wreck too many weekends. Iím glad it wasnít my story: I watched Progeny on a random weekday on the umpteenth day of this COVID-19 pandemic. Couldíve been the 7th day, couldíve been the 47th day for all I know. Itís easy to lose time under quarantine. All I know is that Iíd better not start seeing some strange lights glowing outside because I really donít have the time or energy for an alien abduction right now. Read the goddamn room, E.T.

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