Monday, April 24, 2017

"You Don't Ask a Genius How He Spends His Money" - Metamorphosis (1990)


It is truly a special thing when a respected actor moves into the director's chair and crafts his or her own uncompromised vision of a film. Such a film is 1990's Metamorphosis, the most recent film directed by Luigi Montefiori, the actor known to English-speaking audiences as George Eastman. After directing an erotic bestiality film called Dog Lay Afternoon (1976) and co-directing the post-apocalyptic thriller 2020 Texas Gladiators (1982) with colleague Joe D'Amato, Mr. Eastman turned to the horror genre--home to his most memorable performances in films such as Anthropophagus (1980) and Absurd (1981)--to direct the body horror classic Metamorphosis.

Of course, this classic is unrecognized as such by the critics of your universe. Reviewer Coventry on IMDB writes, inaccurately, "it's mainly a talkative movie....the movie features loads of bad acting, poor lighting, lousy editing and a completely retarded climax to boot." Also on IMDB, evanston_dad writes, also inaccurately but at least eloquently, "This movie isn't even in the remotest realm of good." Finally, also on IMDB, reviewer Frequency270 writes, "Pacing is a large problem with the movie. After thinking I had been watching for ninety minutes, I realized I'd only been watching an hour." As always, such mistaken opinions beg to be corrected.

The film opens at a basketball game with sparse attendance in the stands. "It's a game between students and teachers of the various departments," a professor named Mike in the audience explains to a newcomer, a young blonde woman. The woman immediately asks about someone named Houseman's research funding. "You don't ask a genius how he spends his money," Mike replies, a statement which might invite disagreement from representatives of government agencies as well as private foundations.

It turns out that Peter Houseman is the best basketball player on the court, in addition to being the finest geneticist in what we are told is America.


We cut to Professor Houseman's introductory genetics class at Virginia University, where overdressed college women appear attracted to the mumbling professor in a manner similar to that depicted in Raiders of the Lost Ark.


Houseman is unable to finish his lecture, as he is interrupted on the stage by another professor delivering a slip of paper. Houseman storms out and confronts an administrator, who attempts to explain that Houseman's funding will require annual reports and the publication of research findings. Houseman finds this highly unreasonable, as well he should. However, his administrator informs him that this is an order from the university's head office in New York, so there is no recourse.

Pressured by the university to publish his results, Houseman speeds up his research, which consists of robotically injecting serum into living monkeys' brains through the eyeball.


Houseman is then forced to present results at a department meeting. "Houseman, your report is as scanty as they are fascinating," intones one of the faculty members. Another summarizes Houseman's experiments: Old age and even death will be defeated as cells can constantly reproduce themselves. "Perhaps you are not only arrogant and megalomaniacal, you are also stupid."

All of this leads directly to an experiment in which an elderly man breathes heavily while his giant mutated heart beats in a bottle outside his body.


However, this last experiment might be simply a dream. We watch Professor Houseman awake (he sleeps, apparently, in a crib).


The next day, the outside inspector visits Houseman's lab to find out more about his work. The inspector, Sally, is actually the woman from the basketball game who sat with Professor Mike. She explains to Houseman that she is interested in his genetic experiments to defeat aging because she is 30, and she would like to stay that way. (Vanity, thy name is Sally.)

"I'm convinced," Houseman says profoundly, "that the process of life defends itself by instilling the obligation of death to each individual. In other words, death is the price we must pay for the survival of our species. At least until now."

At a restaurant that is either the university’s faculty club or a suburban Denny’s, Sally and Houseman fall mutually in love, visually represented by Houseman removing his granny glasses on their chain.


Typically for university bureaucrats, the other faculty members and administrators target Houseman's graduate assistant Willy, forcing him into a car to grill him. But before the others take over his experiments, Houseman decides to test his formula on himself. He drives to his lab in his minivan and performs the dangerous deed. The robot arm injects the serum through Houseman's left eyeball.

   

Houseman reacts, as would most of us, by gritting his teeth.

Meanwhile, we learn that Houseman's professor friend Mike has gone out on a date with Inspector Sally, who rebuffs Mike's mild declaration of romantic interest in her. Sally walks to her house and is surprised by Houseman's hand on her shoulder. Despite the late hour, Houseman had promised to let Sally know as soon as his experiments bore fruit.

"I beat them all," he says. "Now I can publish everything, and no one will dare to stop me." Of course, she invites him into her house.

We, along with Houseman, are surprised to find a babysitter in the house, and Sally's young son Tommy, who appears in the doorway. "Hi I wasn't sleeping I was waiting for you," the boy blurts out. After getting Tommy to bed, Sally explains that she has never been married.

Sally and Houseman undress in her bedroom and make lengthy love to the strains of a slow jazz synthesizer.

In class the next day, Houseman impresses the students with his lecture on the helical (pronounced "hellical") structure of DNA. He is invited to a "party" at her house by the most attractive student in the class, despite the professor's continued insistence on wearing his eyeglasses on a chain around his neck.


"When?" he asks about the party. She replies, "Any day. Any time you like."

Houseman then proceeds to knock the crutches out from under Dr. Lloyd, the antagonistic senior professor, when Lloyd attempts to assert control over Houseman's experiment. "He's not a man, he's a worm," explains Houseman to his research assistant.

The next evidence of Houseman's...metamorphosis occurs shockingly when he damages his racket during handball.


Having had sex once, Houseman and Sally immediately become a couple and take her son Tommy to the zoo. Two things become clear: Tommy is an angry boy, and exposure to zoo animals causes Houseman to have visions of bloodily murdering a nude woman.

Disturbed by his vision, Houseman types questions to his computer. The computer tells him he has a chromosome anomaly (or, as the computer more efficiently spells it, a "cromosomic anomaly"). He also discovers that his vision was actually a repressed memory, and he really attacked a woman he met in a bar.

(The filmmakers impart this information cleverly, by having Houseman find a matchbook for the Isle of Capri bar. When he goes to the bar, he is confronted by the woman from his vision, who has a black eye, though in his vision she had spilled a great deal of blood. Then Houseman is attacked by everyone in the bar.)

In his state of...metamorphosis, Houseman easily handles the men attacking him in the bar, nearly killing them. He leaves the bar, with all parties appearing mildly perturbed by the incident.

Mike, concerned about Houseman, meets with Sally at the local Denny's. "I've looked for him everywhere, but no one has seen him," he tells her.

"Have you looked at his house?" she asks perceptively. He responds in the affirmative.

But Houseman is actually in his apartment, though he has not opened the door. He is lying on the bathroom floor, having visions of moving through tall grass somewhere, as if he is a jungle animal. His eyes have even turned greenish yellow.


Houseman actually turns up a week later in the back seat of the car of his research assistant Willy. Something has gone wrong. Though the serum was supposed to prevent aging and death, Houseman looks more wrinkled, and he is shivering. Willy says, "You're freezing." Houseman says, "I know."

Houseman convinces Willy to help him repeat the experiment back in the lab, but this time they take blood samples every 10 minutes to pinpoint where the experiment went wrong. But after the first blood test, Houseman, his eyes yellowish green again, breaks out of the lab.

The next sequence is both horrifying and artistically ambiguous. Houseman goes to an apartment to find a woman that we begin to suspect is the college student who invited him to party any day, any time he likes. She is bleeding and her clothes are torn; apparently Houseman is responsible for her condition, though we never saw him attack her. He promises that he can't hurt her, and then he kills her by lifting her up to the ceiling by her throat. His state of...metamorphosis has advanced slightly.


The murder sequence also makes use of two popular images in horror movies of the late 1980s and early 1990s: vomit and a blood smear on the wall after a head has been shoved against it.

In another creative decision, the filmmakers have the murder lead into a police chase as a police car spots Houseman on foot and chases him through a concrete parking structure. The police car intentionally runs him down and he is taken to the hospital.

Sally rushes to the hospital. After meeting Willy outside and taking a bottle of Houseman's serum from Willy,  she finds Mike standing outside Houseman's hospital room. "All we know," Mike says, "is he entered the laboratory with Willy's help, and he was struck by a police car. It didn't hurt him, but that's all we know. But his organism...it's like he had aged all at once 50 years. It's absurd, but that's how it is."

Houseman's doctor explains they have found antibodies of an unknown organism fighting Houseman's own antibodies. "I may be talking heresy," the doctor says, "but I don't think they're good."


The professor who uses crutches, Dr. Lloyd, retrieves a floppy disk from Willy that explains the experiment. Lloyd confronts Mike and the doctor at the hospital. "Dr. Houseman injected himself with cells with modified DNA." Further, "he opened a dormant information, one that hasn't been active for millions of years. That information is transforming him into what we were. Maybe even before the advent of the mammals."

Houseman is transforming into some sort of prehistoric reptile!

The transformed Houseman, now nearly completely reptilian, escapes the hospital when Dr. Lloyd pays him a visit. Houseman bits Lloyd's throat and uses Lloyd's raincoat as a disguise to get past the armed guard in the hallway (the guard's purpose is somewhat unclear).


In an excellent scene, Houseman kills Willy in the hospital elevator. The camera sits near the floor as Houseman shuffles out of the elevator. Then one of Lloyd's crutches, part of Houseman's disguise, falls to the floor. It is followed down to the floor by Willy's bloody head.

Meanwhile, at Sally's house, Sally is taking a shower and listening to suspenseful music on her record player. Houseman arrives (though, subverting genre expectations, he arrives after Sally finishes her shower and dresses in a sweater) and explains that he is becoming a "living fossil." He needs to get the serum from her so he can return to the lab. "What I become," he says, "shall be forever." When the transformation is complete, he won't ever die.

The phone rings. It's Mike, who says matter-of-factly, "Peter's gone crazy. We don't know where he went." Sally tells Mike that Peter Houseman is at her house, but the line is disconnected.

Houseman attacks Sally for no reason.


She escapes and find the babysitter, mutilated but alive, and her thoughts turn to Tommy. We watch as Houseman abducts Tommy, and then, in a scene that must be improvised, we watch Sally race to her car and battle a malfunctioning garage door opener along with garbage on the floor of her garage.

The climax occurs in Houseman's lab. It appears he intends to use the serum on Tommy, but Tommy is revealed as clever and resourceful, not simply hateful as he was previously portrayed. Tommy smashes the bottle of serum and escapes from the lab, reuniting with his mother in the tunnels adjacent to the lab. Houseman, now fully reptilian, though still attired in an overcoat and white shoes, stalks them.

Sally and Tommy escape fairly quickly to the outside of the building, where a SWAT team is waiting. Then Houseman breaks down the door to the outside, revealing his true form.

   

Houseman is shot dead immediately.

"What was it?" asks a professor.

The chancellor of the university says, "A nightmare...from the past."

Setting up the final twist, Tommy wanders into the lab. When he returns to Sally, he his holding something behind his back. "It's all over, honey," she says. "Everything's going to be okay."

Later, Sally and Tommy pack up her car for a vacation away from Virginia University. Tommy carries a box to the car. When they are driving, Tommy plays with the lizard in the box. "Don't worry," Tommy says. "He won't die. He won't ever die."

The film ends with a closeup of the little lizard's eye.



Metamorphosis is a Filmirage production, a symbol of quality in film production from 1980 to 1994. Filmirage was founded by director Joe D'Amato (Aristide Massaccesi), one of the most prolific filmmakers in Italian history. George Eastman (Luigi Montefiore) acted in several films produced or directed by D'Amato, including Anthropophagous (which the two co-wrote), Absurd, and Stage Fright. With Metamorphosis, producer D'Amato turned the directing reins over to Eastman, and this resulted in one of the most satisfying of the Filmirage productions.

One of the finest directorial touches in Metamorphosis is how Eastman handles the first of the attacks committed by the transforming Peter Houseman. We do not see these attacks first hand. Instead, we only see what happened when Houseman remembers them later, with the attack scene from the past intercut with the present scene. George Eastman's deft hand as a director makes what could be incredibly confusing into something that is only somewhat confusing.

Befitting a film directed by an experienced actor, many of the film's subtle choices are the most effective. For example, the actor who plays Peter Houseman (Gene LeBrock, who also starred in Beyond Darkness) does not look like a typical geneticist, but the addition of eyeglasses with a chain that goes around the neck transforms him into a believable genius. The subtle misdirection of the plot--in which a serum designed to stop aging appears to accelerate the aging process, only to be revealed as transforming Houseman into humanity's reptilian ancestor--is also quite clever. The character of Tommy, too, is an effective subversion of our expectations. Initially angry and resentful, the young boy becomes resourceful, even initiating the events that lead indirectly to Houseman's defeat. For all these reasons and more, Metamorphosis is truly the thinking person's Italian body horror film.


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