Inseminoid: “Dynamic, Provocative, Extravagantly Tasteless”
In his novel The Place of Dead Roads, William S Burroughs suggests that a British space programme never took off for cultural reasons; as soon as we got to the moon and realised there was no-one there to patronise, apparently, we’d give up. Those curious as to what Burroughs might be imagining should head directly towards Inseminoid, reissued on Blu-Ray for the first time ever as part of Indicator’s Bloody Terror: The Shocking Cinema of Norman J Warren 1976-1987 set.
Inseminoid is about a team of astronauts unearthing a long-dead alien civilisation. As is usually the case, this civilisation turns out to be less extinct than hoped, but before that there’s some more mundane dangers to face. In one early set-piece, Gail (Rosalind Lloyd) gets her foot trapped under some rubble; asked by her colleagues why she isn’t back at base yet, she peevishly complains “My foot’s stuck!” The task of guiding her to safety falls to Steven Grives’s Gary, who immediately proves as sensitive and considerate as Burroughs predicted, bellowing “Bypass the thermostat, woman! Damn you, woman!”
There is, then, some amusing material in Warren’s low-budget SF horror. Matthew Holness cited it as an inspiration for Darkplace, and Grives is perhaps the most fearsomely Garth Marenghian performer. Elsewhere, though, there’s a surprising amount of class. Sir Run Run Shaw is in the producer’s chair, the supporting cast includes Stephanie Beacham, Victoria Tennant and a very young Robert Pugh, and Mike Leigh’s regular cinematographer Dick Pope is camera operator. The £1 million budget is pocket change next to a contemporary Hollywood SF film like Alien or The Black Hole, but it’s more than Warren was used to.
Even the Darkplace connection is redeemed when, after being impregnated by an alien, Judy Geeson’s Sandy runs around killing everyone who threatens her extraterrestrial embryo in the manner of Alice Lowe in Prevenge. It’s a surprisingly dynamic, provocative way to treat pregnancy which has inspired plenty of academic comment. It’s just that, to get to it, you have to pass through the scene where Sandy is impregnated, which is somehow even more extravagantly tasteless than you would expect from a film called Inseminoid.
Look closer, though, and the impregnation scene offers some interesting keys to Inseminoid‘s complex genre identity. The whole idea of astronauts excavating an alien civilisation represents a collision between science fiction, which is supposed to be about the future, and Gothic horror, which is about the past. The idea that civilisations can rise and fall on other planets without us noticing also adds a note of the fear of human insignificance that powers cosmic or Lovecraftian horror. Most of the first act of Inseminoid is an SF take on mummy’s-curse stories, which wasn’t a fresh mix even in 1981, but the impregnation scene itself has been genuinely influential. With a naked Geeson stretched out on a metal altar, and an alien whose silhouette resembles a hooded figure, it’s essentially an outer-space spin on the coven scenes from Warren’s earlier film Satan’s Slave (also in the Indicator box set). And in mixing these two ingredients together, Warren essentially invented the standard cinematic alien abduction scene, eight years before the film version of Whitley Streiber’s Communion.
Inseminoid, then, is a film whose strengths and weaknesses are bound up in each other. Its sets, all long corridors and triangle-patterned walls, are fun to see now science fiction is essentially a genre of non-physical locations. On the other hand, Warren does seem a little too impressed by them; he regrets not turning the lighting down, and it’s true that the shadowier final act is radically more effective in horror terms. John Scott, who had contributed luscious, moody jazz scores to Warren’s earlier films, goes electronic with mixed results. Some of it now has an eerie, hauntological quality, but not enough time has elapsed to make the very 1980s stabs of synth bass similarly atmospheric.
It also should be noted that, although Warren is nobody’s idea of a politically correct film-maker, you’ve got an early ’80s British science fiction film here with an even mix of men and women astronauts and even one black crewmember – although, true to genre form, he does die early on. That character is played by Trevor Thomas, who would go on to work with very different maverick British directors like Horace Ové and Ben Hopkins. Thomas is interviewed in the lavish extras along with Warren and Scott, there is a commentary with the typically gentlemanly Warren and his AD Gary White, a 45-minute making-of and a trailer for the film’s American release under the title Horror Planet.