Specimen (1996): Burning Youth

Matty is quietly impressed by a pleasingly low-key sci-fi item.

Beginning with a gorgeous, dreamily shot prologue in which a young boy’s home burns to the ground, soundtracked by an ethereal electronic score by Canadian prog rock icon Lawrence Gowan, it’s clear from the outset that SPECIMEN is more than just a cheap mish-mash of The Terminator (1984), Firestarter (1984), and various alien abduction histrionics. Although a splash of pomp is provided by Doug O’Keeffe’s snarling turn as a nasty, extraterrestrial bounty hunter — an antagonist with a definite whiff of the Arnies to him — by and large, director John Bradshaw’s engaging programmer is a surprisingly subdued and thoughtful mood piece. 

Dripping with an air of autumnal melancholy, in Specimen Bradshaw weaves an evocative coming of age tale that occupies a compelling midpoint between family drama and a low-key superhero origin story. The plot is thus: Saved By the Bell’s Mark-Paul Gosselaar stars as a twenty-four year-old lad who goes on a quest to find out who his absent father is, only to discover that he himself is an experimental alien-human hybrid with the ability to control fire.

Despite Sheldon Inkol and Lauren McLaughlin’s ambitious yet lopsided script over-explaining some stuff that doesn’t need explaining and leaving vague a couple of things that would’ve benefited from greater clarity, Specimen is a diverting and effective little offering that rises above its limitations. While stricken with the odd pocket of cack-handed dialogue, Gosselaar makes for a likeable lead and submits an effectively angsty performance that’ll strike a chord with anyone who’s ever questioned their own place in the world. The rest of the cast run the gamut quality-wise, ranging from barely serviceable to good, with the aforementioned O’Keeffe and his bottomless supply of glowers and glares the standout (his leather-clad bastard of a character is tasked with bringing Gosselaar’s eponymous specimen back home). Visually, Specimen is bolstered by excellent Steadicam work, and Bradshaw demonstrates a strong command of look and tone, balancing the leafy naturalism of the film’s Toronto locations with the narrative’s more fantastical flutters very nicely indeed.  

Produced and co-conceived by maple leaf B-movie specialist Damian Lee and picked up for distribution by Royal Oaks Entertainment, Specimen premiered stateside on SyFy (née Sci-Fi) in a slightly truncated form, the channel pruning the scene in which Gosselaar’s on-screen Mum frolics naked in the woods ahead of its debut on 14th September 1996. An uncut U.S. VHS release followed in January 1998 via A-Pix.

Specimen was also cut here in the U.K. The nudity wasn’t a problem but the BBFC took umbrage with a particularly gratuitous neck-break delivered by O’Keeffe, demanding six seconds of trims from Guild Home Video before their cassette could hit video store shelves in early 1997. Said snips extend to the film’s budget-priced DVD — a disc that was once a common sight in bargain bins c. 2002 time.

Canada ● 1996 ● Sci-Fi, Drama ● 81mins 

Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Doug O’Keeffe, Ingrid Kavelaars, Andrew Jackson ● Dir. John Bradshaw Wri. Sheldon Inkol, Lauren McLaughlin, story by John Bradshaw, Damian Lee

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