“Metamorphosis”

affiche-metamorphosis-1990-1Metamorphosis” is an Italian-made variation on the classic mad scientist tale of a brilliant man cursed by his own hubris to turn himself into a Halloween costume. Seemingly made with ample inspiration taken from David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly,” “Metamorphosis” ratchets up the mindless violence but tones down the tragedy. Unlike Jeff Goldblum’s doomed Seth Brundle, the main character of “Metamorphosis” only succeeds in making himself as physically ugly as he is spiritually.

Dr. Peter Houseman is a brilliant geneticist working on extremely secret research at a university. His research is so secret, in fact, that he’s been spending his grant money without telling anyone exactly what it is he’s trying to accomplish. At first, the university has no problem with this, because apparently it’s insulting to ask a genius what he or she is doing. Maybe the university is afraid Houseman will leave and spend some other school’s money on a crapshoot. Eventually, however, the university comes to its senses and assigns an auditor to account for all of the money Houseman is spending. Sally, the auditor, is a beautiful woman, but Houseman doesn’t know that at first. In her presence, he throws a tantrum about giving oversight of his work over to “some old hag” and she throws it back in his face. They will, naturally, have sex before the movie is over because in the land of make-believe naked contempt between two people is only the first stage of a lasting relationship.

Houseman’s research is in attempting to reverse the aging process, which has something to do with preventing individual cells from breaking down and involves getting a needle jammed right through your got-dang eyeball. For me personally, I think I’d draw the line for everlasting life at a suppository. Anything more than that and it’s not worth it. The university wants to know exactly how Houseman thinks this process will work and they demand to see his notes before they’ll buy him any more baboons. It turns out the university was right to be worried about Houseman’s reaction to their absolutely reasonable request, because he flips out and almost immediately goes to his lab so he can jab himself in the eyeball.

At first, the experiment seems to have been a complete success because Houseman can hear a rabbit sniffling from across the room. Again, the point of his experiments is to become immortal, so I don’t understand what having really good hearing has to do with anything. But Houseman is very excited about this and I guess you never ask a genius to explain himself, so whatever. He’s so excited about what just happened that he goes to Sally’s house and their conversation about it goes something like this:

HOUSEMAN: Hey, you know that stuff I’ve been squirting into monkeys without telling anyone why? I just injected myself with it!

SALLY: Hey, that’s great. Why don’t you come inside for some coffee?

Of course, Sally is wrong to be so nonchalant about her boyfriend conducting secret genetic experiments on himself, although everything seems fine at first. Houseman and Sally further their relationship, which includes Houseman getting to know Sally’s son. Houseman pulls the kid aside at one point to tell him he doesn’t like him, but they have to get along for the sake of Houseman’s getting some from his mom. The relationship between Houseman and Sally’s kid doesn’t factor into the movie much further than that one little scene, so I assume that scene is just there to remind us that Houseman is still a prick.

Things start to go downhill quickly, however, as Houseman begins having odd flashbacks to things he doesn’t remember doing, like brutalizing a prostitute. As it happens, his experiments have unlocked some primitive area of his genetic code, occasionally transforming him into a murderous beast that exclusively targets young women. Eventually, Houseman turns himself in and the university keeps him under watch. It’s while he’s in the hospital that he takes a turn for the worse, becoming an old man overnight as his body begins to break down. Nevertheless, Houseman’s disabled boss wants to cut him open and figure out what he did to himself in the hope that turning people into murderers and later old men might be profitable in some way.

Houseman spends a few days under a sheet, and when he finally emerges again he’s not an old man anymore. He looks more like one of the microcephalic dinosaur-men from the “Super Mario Bros.” movie. He kills his boss and sneaks out of the hospital so he can stalk Sally and her kid. Everyone ends up cornered in Houseman’s lab at the university, where Houseman molts and assumes his presumably final form – a baggy-looking version of something Captain Kirk would have wrestled on “Star Trek.” Just before the cops start shooting, we get this exchange:

COP #1: What was it?

COP #2: A nightmare…from the past.

It’s no “He tampered in God’s domain,” but that’s still more poetic than I would have been in that same situation. You have to admire that cop’s ability to keep a clear head just seconds after encountering and then killing a man-sized lizard monster. I don’t even think I would have the wherewithal to connect the dots that the thing I just saw was some kind of living fossil. I’d just stand there repeating, “What the FUCK was that?” over and over again. I’d probably take a personal day after that, too. I wouldn’t be a good cop.

So Houseman has apparently melted into a pile of goo and everyone is safe now, which means it’s time for the Horror Movie Fake Happy Ending. Sally and her son are moving to a new town where apparently she’ll be auditing another mad scientist’s unholy experiments (paging Dr. Herbert West!). As they’re driving away, Sally notices her kid is carrying a cage with a tiny lizard in it. The kid tells her that the lizard will “live forever,” and then there’s a close-up shot of the lizard to let you know that this lizard is EVIL. Sally freezes in terror, the credits roll, movie’s over.

Clearly we’re led to believe that Houseman didn’t simply disintegrate at the end of the movie, but somehow mutated into a pet-store gecko. This is frightening in theory but what’s stopping Sally from just throwing the Houseman-gecko out the car window? A new lizard is what, like five bucks? The kid is never going to know the difference. And unless Houseman has acid spit or mind control powers or razor-sharp claws I don’t understand how he’s any kind of threat as a tiny lizard. I suppose it’s surprising that he was able to transform himself into a gecko in the first place, but beyond that it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you use to end a horror movie.

Unless you’re a completist for gecko-related horror movies or mistakenly assuming you’re getting a Kafka adaptation, there’s no good reason to watch “Metamorphosis.”

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