Embryo (Embrión) (2020)

An embryo is the collection of cells making up an organism before it is ready to be born or hatched – and the term is sometimes used, by a metaphorical extension, to refer to a rudimentary or beginning stage. So while the title of Patricio Valladares’ low-budget sci-fi horror might be taken to refer to the pregnancy of two of its characters after they have separate alien encounters on Snowdevil Mountain in Chile’s Valle las Trancas, it might also be regarded as capturing the film’s own embryonic state. For like the scribbled drawings made by two of its characters, Embryo (Embrión) feels more a sketch than a complete movie, pieced together from news reports, home movies and music videos. 

Embryo interweaves a story of alien abduction, impregnation and eerie, icky aftermath in 2020 with two ‘cases’ from years earlier (one of which may have no connection to extra-terrestrials). Without the condensed exposition tacked on at the film’s beginning and end, viewers would struggle to see a bigger picture or to make these episodes cohere in any way. In the present, Evelyn (Romina Perazzo) is assaulted at night on the mountain, and wakes up pregnant and insatiably hungry for human flesh. As her loving fiancé Kevin (Domingo Guzmán) keeps protecting her – with increasing inexplicability – during a 24-hour killing spree, we also see a music video shoot gone very wrong, and the mountain hike of another couple (Evelyn Belmar, Giordano Rossi) which ends in not one but two alien intrusions set years apart. Meanwhile a police officer (Cristian Cuentrejo) is conducting his own obsessive private investigation into local alien activity.

Knowing that this was shot as a pilot for television – and that its production was severely curtailed by the arrival of Covid – certainly helps explain the film’s setting up of multiple mysteries that are never resolved. This also creates a pleasingly trippy sense of disorientation that goes some way to compensating for the lack of any fully developed characters or story in the screenplay by Valladares and his regular collaborator Barry Keating (Downhill, 2016; Nightworld, 2017). There is also much narrative repetition and a dearth of economy – for, despite the relatively brief running time of 72 minutes, (multiple) flashbacks to scenes already shown merely slow the pace, while gratuitous sightseeing footage from a couple’s trip to Central London (in fact Valladares’ own holiday video from when he brought Hidden in the Woods to FrightFest in 2012) adds precisely nothing to what is, after all, a Chilean tale.

Yet for all this, the fragmentary nature of Embryo makes the film its own UFO – strange, elusive and difficult to identify. As inchoate and provisional as its title implies, Embryo is a palimpsest for a different, unfinished film, desperate to be brought to term. 

strap: Patricio Valladares’s fragmentary sci-fi horror Embryo (Embrión) offers an inchoate sketch of alien abduction and impregnation.

© Anton Bitel