“Syngenor” Quietly Marks The End Of A Cinematic Era

Posted: June 12, 2009 in movies
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Original European poster for "Syngenor"

Original European poster for "Syngenor"

Whatever happened to the guy in the rubber suit?

Ever since “The Creature From The Black Lagoon,” the rubber  reptilian (usually) monster has been something of an on-again, off-again mainstay in the world of horror cinema, and while CGI has certainly made putting an actual human inside one of these slimy sweatboxes redundant at best, it’s fair to say that the era of this particular type of movie baddie was over long before today’s computer effects wizards went to work.  The purported “sophistication” of more modern audiences convinced filmmakers long ago that a dude in a goofy costume just didn’t have what it takes to scare people anymore, and while I can’t say for certain, it seems to your humble host that the 1990 horror-sci-fi semi-thriller “Syngenor” is quite probably the last stand of the rubber-bedecked bad guy, and for that reason alone, it’s worth a look.

First off, it should be stated that “Syngenor” is a sequel — of sorts. Actually, it’s not so much a “part two” as it is another movie featuring the exact same monsters as William (“Creature”) Malone’s 1981 ultra-low-budget (but nevertheless effective) “Scared To Death.” It’s not in the least bit necessary to know the first thing about the earlier  film, though, in order to fully comprehend this later offering, so I won’t go into detail about it here beyond saying it’s definitely worth a look,  and it’s a fair bet that most audiences (such as there were) that caught “Syngenor” during its ultra-brief theatrical run didn’t know the first thing about the previous Syngenor flick, either. Malone himself was not involved with the movie in any way—he had written a brief outline of a script which was later changed more or less wholesale by screenwriters Michael Carmody and Brent V. Friedman, and the directing duties were handled by George Elanjian, Jr., so this thing probably doesn’t even count as a “follow-up” to “Scared To Death” — like I said before, the best way to describe it would probably be to call it a movie that features the same monsters as another, earlier movie.

The plot is pretty simple stuff — a couple of low-life yuppie types pick up a couple of ladies of  “easy virtue” and take them back to the flashy corporate headquarters (actually L.A.’s disused Ambassador Hotel, infamous for being the site where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated) of Norton Cyberdyne, where the fellas serve as mid-level executives. Unbeknownst to the women, though (and to one of the yuppie scumbags himself), they’ve been “selected” to become “test subjects” for the ruthless killing efficiency of the Syngenors (shorthand for Synthesized Genetic Organism), a race of reptilian super-soldiers genetically engineered by the corporation to fight in the hostile climate of the Middle East (it’s worth noting that Gulf War I was going on at the time this film was released) The Syngenors don’t need any water, and survive by drinking the spinal fluid of their victims with their long lizard-tongues. They also reproduce asexually by laying a pod every 24 hours from which a new Syngenor hatches, fully-formed and ready to fight. So even if there are any casualties on the Syngenor side, they’re replaced rather quickly. Obviously, then, the Pentagon is pretty hot-to-trot to get these new slime-coated soldiers into action.

The in-on-the-plot yuppie, a greasy operator named Armbrewster (Charles Lucia) turns the Syngenors loose on his colleague and their—uhhhmmm—“dates,” but he doesn’t count on one of them getting loose from headquarters  and going straight to the home of their creator, a reclusive scientist named Ethan Valentine (Lewis Arquette, patriarch of the Hollywood Arquette clan) who has left Norton Cyberdyne and now works out of his garage on various mad-geneticist-type projects. Evidently, though, the Syngenor doesn’t harbor warm feelings for its surrogate “father,” and mauls him to pieces before laying a pod in his garage.

Unfortunately for her, Valentine’s live-in niece, Susan (Starr Andreeff, who bears something of a resemblance to a younger Mariska Hargitay), gets home from an evening out just shortly after her uncle’s murder, and the Syngenor attacks her in the family home. She manages to get away, though, and report what happened to a friend of her uncle’s who works as a police lieutenant. She doesn’t get a whole lot of help from the cops, though, who bury her report under pressure from Norton Cyberdyne’s CEO, Carter Brown (David Gale of “Re-Animator” fame who delivers an equally fun and OTT performance here as a corporate boss slowly losing his mind as his whole world comes crashing down around him—largely due to his own sleazy machinations).

She does, however, find help in the form of newspaper reporter Nick Carey (Mitchell Laurance), who went down to Norton Cyberdyne HQ in order to do an “executive of the year” puff-piece on Brown and ended up finding out about the previous night’s murder from a chatty secretary (played by Melanie Shatner — yes, you-know-who’s daughter) who also happens to be Brown’s niece.  The younger Brown also clues Carey into the fact that a leading scientist for the company quit a few weeks back, and when he can’t get in to see Brown to write his fluff story, he decides to follow his reporter’s instincts and go check out the home of said no-longer-employed-there scientist. That’s when he meets Susan, finds out what happened to her uncle, and the two of them go on the trail of the Syngenor mystery.

The Syngenor, last of the rubber-suited villains

The Syngenor, last of the rubber-suited villains

From there the pace does drag a bit as we get enmeshed in corporate scandal between Carter Brown, Armbrewster, who’s trying to depose him and move up the ranks, and a third untrustworthy executive , Paula Gorski (Riva Spier), who Brown has the hots for but who’s secretly playing both he and Armbrewster against each other for her own ends.  Things get a bit talky, in other words, and the action lags as our heroes (who quickly also become lovers) investigate all this company intrigue, but it never gets truly dull, and watching Gale (who really does look like John Kerry with a receding hairline) portray Brown’s gradual melt-down really is a lot of fun (I just wish I knew what the green serum he’s always injecting in his neck is—it’s never explained and, according to the commentary track on the DVD, this is intentional. Still, I’d be curious to know—that’s just the kind of guy I am).

David Gale in full nervous breakdown mode

David Gale in full nervous breakdown mode

The somewhat slower middle section is certainly worth it in the end, though, as the pod in Susan’s uncle’s garage hatches and terrorizes her and Nick at the house before they make their escape and plunge into a  final, protracted battle against the Syngenor army at company headquarters, with Brown going apeshit and killing everybody the evil reptiles don’t.  It’s  an absolute blast to watch, with plenty of bloodletting, pretty solid gore effects (from Robert and Dennis Skotak, who worked with James Cameron on “Aliens” and “The Abyss”), and an impressively high body count. In other words, don’t give up on this thing halfway through because the finale is everything you could hope for and then some.

“Syngenor” certainly isn’t a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s definitely plenty solid all things considered,  has a seriously great performance from Gale, and pays off the patient viewer, with interest, at the end. All in all, the era of the rubber-suited monster (and it’s a pretty damn good rubber-suited monster at that) probably couldn’t have asked for a better send-off.

DVDCover For Synapse Films' release of "Syngenor"

DVD Cover For Synapse Films' release of "Syngenor"

“Syngenor” is available on DVD from Synapse Films in a terrific package that includes an impressively sharp 1.85:1  widescreen transfer, a newly-remastered 5.1 surround audio track, an extensive gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and publicity stills and artwork, three pretty interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes, and an audio commentary featuring actress Starr Andreeff, screenwriter Brent V. Friedman and producer Jack F. Murphy.  A really nice “special edition” that, for once, genuinely lives up to that name.

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