November 12, 2012

The Freakmaker aka The Mutations (1974)

This article on The Freakmaker (1974) originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

Someone (or some-THING!) is kidnapping the young (and incredibly stylish) students from the local university. A few days later, the visiting carnival showcases some "new additions" to their "Freak Show" attraction. What's the connection?

This 1970s oddball curiosity stars horror icon Donald Pleasance as the creepy and super-serious Professor Nolter, a teacher who has bizarre theories of combining plant and animal life through mutation and metamorphosis. He's so serious about his teaching that when a snarky student makes some jokes during one of his lectures, he deadpans in his weird accent, "We are interested in cloning...not in clowning." Sheesh.

Now enter, Mr. Lynch (played by an unrecognizable Tom Baker, made famous to cult audiences as the most popular incarnation of Dr. Who and, most recently, as the wry narrator of the BBC hit sketch show, Little Britain), the horribly deformed, self-loathing and vicious owner of the traveling sideshow. Together these two form a villainous alliance in the pursuit of creating the ultimate living plant/creature.

This film, which can best be described as a mix of classic Frankenstein elements and an homage to Todd Browning's 1933 Freaks (with a healthy dash of The Little Shop of Horrors thrown in for some gooey, shock thrills), is no doubt a strange and unsettling one. This is due largely in part to the eerie and surreal soundtrack and the casting of real human "oddities", not to mention the effectively gruesome make-up job on Tom Baker's evil Lynch character. However, the story falls into the typical cliches of the horror formula, with the usual chase scenes, "damsel-in-distress" moments and ultimately, the gruesome and well-deserved demises of the villains - complete with final eradication by fire, an end most always found in horror films.

The performances? Pleasance is fine, as usual, and rather underplays the whole "mad scientist" role, where as he could have gone in the complete opposite direction. Tom Baker is memorably gruff and intimidating and definitely cuts an imposing figure with his tall stature and big floppy hat, hideous face wrapped with a scarf. The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable, except, of course, for the genuine human oddities used in the film, like the "Alligator Woman", "The Human Pretzel" and "Popeye", who despite being visually memorable, fail to register on a dramatic level due to their lack of acting experience.

The Freakmaker, which was quite low-budget compared to today's standards (the film cost approx. $400,000), looks pretty amazing. The laboratory sets are quite elaborate and the carnival location provides an effectively murky and seedy atmosphere. Most curious of all is the fact that this typical "B"-type picture, one which features many tried-and-true exploitation elements, is directed by none other than Jack Cardiff, the brilliant Academy Award-winning cinematographer and director whose work ranged from photographing the hypnotizing Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger films such as Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and others, as well as directing a wide variety of films that range from Sons and Lovers (1960) and My Geisha (1962) with Shirley MacLaine to the spy spoof The Liquidator (1965) and, ultimately, the psychedelic Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) with Alain Delon and Marianne Faithfull. However, despite Cardiff's lapses into different genres, The Freakmaker still seems to be the strangest contribution to his resume and career. It also remains his last directorial effort.

The 2005 DVD released by Subversive Cinema offers a lot of great supplemental material for fans of the film and curiosity seekers. There is the usual still gallery (including lobby cards and the spooky and effective poster art), trailer gallery (including other cult titles from the Subversive library, like the Japanese Battlefield Baseball (2003) and the kidnap thriller The Candy Snatchers (1973)) and a half-hour featurette on the making of the film, complete with interviews of Jack Cardiff, co-star Brad Harris and writer/producer Robert Weinbach. All three also participate in a commentary track.

Naturally, the film will be mainly of interest to fans of the performers and director Cardiff, but as an attempt to view it solely as a film and as a story, it's quite disappointing. On the other hand, it's a much more entertaining experience if you watch The Freakmaker with the second commentary by Weinbach and Harris. Their candid and often amusing remarks about the making of the film reveal plenty of odd details about the cast and crew including some gossip about the real freaks in the film such as the "Alligator Woman" who, in real life, had seven children with her husband and an illegitimate eighth child with "The Frog Boy."