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Retro Review: THE FREAKMAKER (1974)

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THE FREAKMAKER
aka THE MUTATIONS
(UK - 1974) 

Directed by Jack Cardiff. Written by Robert D. Weinbach and Edward Mann. Cast: Donald Pleasence, Tom Baker, Brad Harris, Julie Ege, Michael Dunn, Scott Antony, Jill Haworth, Olga Anthony, Lisa Collings, Tony Mayne, Molly Tweedlie, Kathy Kitchen, Fran Fullenwider, Lesley Roose, Fay Bura, Willie "Popeye" Ingram, Esther "Alligator Girl" Blackmon, Hugh "Pretzel Boy" Baily, Felix "Frog Boy" Duarte. (R, 92 mins)

THE FREAKMAKER, the premiere offering from DiabolikDVD's new partnership with the reactivated VHS-era label Vidcrest (because physical media is dead), is a dreary and often repugnant British body-horror film that was somehow picked up by Columbia and released in the US as THE MUTATIONS. Under either title, it's dull, tacky, and unpleasantly gross, though one can imagine some potential if retroactively looking at it as a DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS remake if directed by David Cronenberg. But it's also a pseudo-remake of Tod Browning's FREAKS (including a "one of us" invocation), and its exploitative use of real-life circus freaks, some of whom are billed with their circus names, is queasy enough to make the climax of THE SENTINEL look like a model of sensitivity, and on top of that, the film's two disparate storylines never really gel. Even on a technical level, it's an ugly mess, which is surprising since it's directed by Oscar-winning BLACK NARCISSUS cinematographer Jack Cardiff (1914-2009), who would occasionally helm his own films, even earning a Best Director Oscar nomination for 1960's SONS AND LOVERS. And though it wasn't a big hit in its day, Cardiff's best-known work as a director is 1968's ferocious "men on a mission" mercenary adventure DARK OF THE SUN, a cult classic now rightfully regarded as one of the best action movies of a decade jam-packed with them.






Cardiff is having a really off day with THE FREAKMAKER, and it's probably a telling sign that it ended up being his last film as a director, as he'd return to his regular day job as a hired-gun cinematographer on titles as varied as 1978's DEATH ON THE NILE, 1981's GHOST STORY, and 1985's RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II. THE FREAKMAKER gets off to such a rambling, tedious start that it actually never manages to recover and find its footing. It opens with nearly ten excruciating minutes of what looks like stock footage from PBS' NOVA, showing time-lapse plant, flower, and nature growth, sometimes with a droning ambient score that sounds like it's emanating from a broke-ass synthesizer, and sometimes accompanied by muffled, monotone narration from Donald Pleasence. Pleasence is Dr. Nolter, a college professor who's a closet mad scientist, prone to using his students as unwitting guinea pigs in his bizarre experiments cross-breeding plant and human DNA...for some reason. He does so with the help of Lynch (Tom Baker, around the same time he became the Fourth Doctor on BBC's DOCTOR WHO), his drooling, horribly-deformed henchman who keeps clinging to Nolter's empty promises that he'll "fix" him. Nolter's botched experiments are either disposed of by Lynch or sold to a demeaning traveling circus where they're part of the freakshow hosted by dwarf Burns (SHIP OF FOOLS Oscar-nominee and THE WILD WILD WEST villain Michael Dunn, in one of his last films), as they slowly plot a FREAKS-esque revolt against their continued mistreatment. One of Nolter's students, Tony (Scott Antony) starts snooping around after hours and is abducted by Lynch and taken to Nolter, who promptly turns him into a half-man/half-Venus Flytrap. That understandably doesn't fly with Tony's girlfriend Lauren (Jill Haworth), and their friend Hedi (Julie Ege), who's just started fooling around with visiting American botanist Brian, improbably played by muscular '60s peplum star Brad Harris, whose long intro arriving at the airport is accompanied by Lauren and Hedi fawning over him and cooing from a distance about how good-looking he is, an idea no doubt suggested to Cardiff by co-producer Brad Harris.


Executive-produced by oil scion J. Ronald Getty, the second son of J. Paul Getty, THE FREAKMAKER is just an all-around, front-to-back, start-to-finish lousy movie, and it's not even an entertaining bad movie. It's hard to believe Columbia saw fit to even release it--unless Getty greased some palms--and even harder to fathom that someone of Cardiff's caliber was responsible for directing it. Remember when THE KILLING FIELDS and THE MISSION director Roland Joffe made the post-SAW torture porn horror outing CAPTIVITY? That's how bizarre it is to see Cardiff's name on something this trashy. He's totally punching a clock here, as is everyone, especially a sleepwalking Pleasence, whose scenes are sporadic enough that he probably only worked on this for a few days, and from the look and sound of his mumbling, indifferent performance, did so right after some kind of emergency dental procedure. Baker, just a couple of years removed from his memorable performance as Rasputin in 1971's NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, seems thankful that he's got a ton of hastily-glued-on rubber prosthetics to hide behind. He admirably tries to imbue his character with some degree of pathos when he visits a prostitute (Lisa Collings), who strips nude for him but seems taken aback that he doesn't want sex, but rather, only wants her to say nice things to him. It's a genuinely good moment for Baker, but THE FREAKMAKER blows it by immediately cutting away. This was also one of the last projects to feature Dunn, who had just co-starred in a similarly junky horror film around the same time, the Italian-made FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS. Both were among several films released after the busy character actor died in his sleep in August 1973 at just 38 while working on Anthony Harvey's THE ABDICATION. In a film where nearly everything is handled as badly as possible, Cardiff at least has the sense to include some gratuitous nudity from the stunning Ege, so if nothing else, it does get something right.



THE FREAKMAKER, under its US title THE MUTATIONS,
opening in Toledo, OH on 9/27/1974


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