Brian Yuzna’s Progeny (1998): The Terror Within

Matty goes (goo-goo) gaga for the splatter maestro’s sturdy sci-shocker.

Beginning as a producer himself and no slouch in the scripting department either, Brian Yuzna has always been quick to credit the writers and producers of his movies. And following PROGENY’s screening at Montreal’s Fant-Asia Film Festival in July 1998, where it played alongside his sequel, The Dentist 2 (1998), Yuzna was keen to draw attention to the fact that the film’s making was driven by scribe Aubrey Solomon and impresario Jack F. Murphy — the latter of whom Yuzna had collaborated with on the sensationally gooey creature feature Ticks (1993). As Yuzna told critic Donato Totaro

“Progeny has a long history. Aubrey had written a screenplay way back. Jack had him rewrite it and it floated around a while, at which point it was a completely different movie, more of a Stepford Wives (1975) with lots of little alien babies running around. When Jack asked if I would direct it I said I would like to focus it a little more, and I suggested they talk to Stuart Gordon about doing story work on it for my purposes. Stuart is the guy I go to because he’s the best storyteller that I know. He can take a complicated thing and simplify it. So Stuart said “let’s concentrate on the Rosemary’s Baby (1968) part of it.” And we started to re-interpret the script and then Aubrey re-wrote it based on that.” [1]

Of course, despite Yuzna’s modest claim that he was only a director for hire and that “it’s really Jack and Aubrey’s movie” [1], Progeny is an auteur piece through and through, as even a cursory look makes clear. Moored in the same conceptual terrain as Society (1989) and Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990), Progeny is the final instalment in an unofficial series of sorts: the capper to a trio of Yuzna flicks that deal with fear and paranoia among the classes — the ruling, the working, and the middle, respectively. Beverly Hills. Skid Row. Suburbia. However, where Society and Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 both unfold from a single protagonist’s perspective, Yuzna pitches Progeny as he did Bride of Re-Animator (1990) and Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993), affording us multiple points of view that converge into a seamless whole by the film’s third act. Of the two on show here, it’s Jillian McWhirter’s strand that stirs the most. McWhirter is an excellent actress and, like Melinda Clarke in Return of the Living Dead 3, she submits a tour de force performance as her character gets to grips with the transformative force raging inside her. Whether the bun in McWhirter’s oven is or isn’t of this world is the thrust of Arnold Vosloo’s arc as her doting doctor husband. Though the ambiguity of his predicament is often betrayed by Yuzna defaulting to his usual bursts of gore and surrealistic make-up FX (courtesy of frequent collaborator Screaming Mad George), and is hindered somewhat by Vosloo’s not entirely convincing leading man turn, the helmer has fun positing a few what-ifs — namely, that everything we’re seeing could very well be the result of the increasingly fraught Vosloo’s professional and personal life getting on top of him, a la the eponymous gum-slasher at the centre of Yuzna’s 1996 shocker The Dentist

Touching upon themes of paternal apprehension and antenatal depression, Yuzna’s direction is appropriately mature and serious — but any accusations of Progeny being stuffy or po-faced should be allayed by its flutters of wry humour; some clever and creepy uses of simulacra (again in the Society and Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 mode); and the aforementioned fruity FX weirdness.

In regards to the rubber contortions, Screaming Mad George’s alien designs are at once familiar yet deliciously peculiar. They’re a kind of cross between the classic, black-eyed Roswell archetypes of UFO lore, a balloon animal, and a particularly strange brand of rubber sex doll, all big buggish eyes, tendrils, and luminous white flesh. A man with an innate understanding of how to shoot such charismatic creations, Yuzna captures them and a monstrous roach-baby (fashioned by SOTA F/X) with typically perverse glamour — though he’s at his best during Progeny’s quieter moments, when he’s ratcheting up the human drama with claustrophobic framing and soul-piercing close-ups.

Lensed in twenty-three days on a budget a notch or so above $2million [2], Progeny was already in profit prior to shooting. It earned a boatload in pre-sales at the 1997 American Film Market, buyers encouraged by a logline that embellished the medical and sci-fi trappings of the plot and tethered the film to two of the biggest cultural touchstones of the era:

“It’s E.R. meets The X-Files!”.

US ● 1998 ● Sci-Fi, Horror ● 98mins

Arnold Vosloo, Jillian McWhirter, Lindsay Crouse, Wilford Brimley, Brad Dourif ● Dir. Brian Yuzna ● Wri. Aubrey Solomon, from a story by Aubrey Solomon and Stuart Gordon

[1] Interview with Brian Yuzna and Jillian McWhirter by Donato Totaro, Offscreen, Vol. 3, Issue 2, February 1999.
[2] Press materials at the time stated that Progeny was “a $6million dollar production” but it was actually in the $2.1 to $2.5million bracket according to Yuzna.

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