Five minutes into The Freakmaker (1974), aka The Mutations, time lapse photography creates an illusion that flowers opening their petals is a burst of fireworks. The opening credits end and I was grateful that the entirety of what I’d seen thus far, nothing but time lapse photography of plants growing, was over. Nope; it’s another three minutes before we see a person.
For those three minutes, at least we hear Donald Pleasence talking, although it’s at a pace more like slow-motion. He plays Dr. Noter, a professor speaking to his class about carnivorous plants and how, although his students may think they’re normal, they’re instead products of mutations. He continues his lecture mentioning uncontrolled mutations, genetic manipulation, and cloning.
Yes, he’s the mad scientist in a story that’s one-half about failed experiments that create monsters. He claims to be getting close to synthesizing two life forms and creating a new race of man with all the miraculous properties of a plant. The other half of the story is about what happens to his failures when he donates them to a traveling freak show.
The first half becomes entertaining in the last act, with goofy plant monsters opening like a Venus flytrap to envelop their prey. These creatures are a throwback to 1950s low-budget sci-fi films with homemade costumes. However, I love the faces of those in mid-transformation; think placing the front part of a trumpet (painted green) on the face of a Sleestak.
The second half is, well, half-baked. It’s blatantly inspired by Freaks (1932), even evoking similar speeches. However, the relationship of the leader of the band of sideshow attractions, Lynch (Tom Baker), is used more as Dr. Noter’s henchman than as an enemy of his people. Had the relationship been better developed, and had Lynch suffered a more horrific fate, it might have meshed more seamlessly.
You all are going to think I’m the monster, but... (spoiler alert!) while being torn apart by a pack of angry dogs is horrific, if you’re going to copy Freaks, you need to turn him into a duck-man or something over-the-top. Lynch’s end was anticlimactic for me, with the bearded lady, monkey woman, frog boy, et al, slowly approaching him while he backs himself into the dogs.
At an overall 92 minutes, The Freakmaker, isn’t necessarily too long. However, it’s too long for the content it provides. Beside the, in total, 11-minute opening credits and scene, there’s a long scene in which we’re introduced to each and every one of the sideshow attractions during a show; that is, except for the “Lizard Woman of Tibet,” which is about the same time that Lauren (Jill Haworth) disappears.
On paper, it doesn’t sound any worse than any number of sleazy 1970s horror films. This was the last of 15 movies directed by Jack Cardiff, who, I am not kidding, was the Oscar-winning cinematographer for Black Narcissus (1947.) After The Freakmaker, he returned to his day job and worked into the 2000s, demonstrating a man who realizes his strengths.
Written by Robert D. Weinbach, Edward Mann
Directed by Jack Cardiff
Starring Donald Pleasence, Tom Baker, Brad Harris, Julie Ege, Michael Dunn, Scott Antony, Jill Haworth
RT 92 min.
Released May 22, 1974 (US), Nov. 14, 1974 (UK)
Home Video Blu-ray (Vidcrest)
Rating 5 possessed children (out of 10)