Judge Bill Gibron was hoping that this was the story of how Mentos are made. Unfortunately, it's just a decent if rather dopey, early '70s horror film.
It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature…it can be horrifying!
The students of Dr. Nolter (Donald Pleasence, Halloween) are starting to worry about their crackpot college professor. He is obsessed with the concept of plants and plant mutation, and spends endless hours lecturing on the connection between foliage, humans, and evolution. When visiting scholar Brian (Brad Harris, The Mad Butcher) shows up to work with the subdued scientist, he can see that Nolter's experiments have worked their way over into the bizarre.
At the local Fun Fair, things have gotten really weird as well. The sideshow attraction run by Mr. Burns (Michael Dunn, The Wild Wild West) and Mr. Lynch (Tom Baker, Dr. Who) has some strange new exhibits, including a hideously deformed "Lizard Lady." Meanwhile, the regular freaks are getting nervous. Lynch is a deformed ogre who loathes the human oddities he lords over, and he makes his hatred known viciously, and violently.
Of course, the two situations are related. Lynch is working for Dr. Nolter, kidnapping young coeds and bringing them to his lab for grotesque gene-splicing. Lynch hopes that the scientist can reverse his own facial deformities. Naturally, all "failures" find their way under the crooked carnival tent. It will take the efforts of Brian and the performing regulars to stop this diabolic plot before The Freakmaker can create more plant/man mutations.
The Freakmaker is exactly what you'd expect from a British revamp of Tod Browning's classic Freaks. It's very polite, filled with Hammer-style horrors and ends up almost apologizing for its own existence. Highly moralizing with a far more friendly view of human oddities than other films of its kind, it's a lot like watching a traditional exploitation road show as enacted by the Old Vic. Indeed, the entire experience is very unsettling. The mixture of gore and graciousness, the combination of oddball make-up fakes with the real-life selection of "strange people," creates a film that's disconcerting and disturbing—just not in all the ways the creators envisioned it.
This is a disjointed and occasionally uninspired experience that has moments of brilliance and equally aggravating segments of outright idiocy. Never achieving the kind of magic lyricism that Browning found in his story, and looking very dated in its early '70s Swinging London designs, there is still enough invention and imagination here to prompt a recommendation. But it can be a dull drive through some meandering muddle to get to the good stuff.
At the core of the confusion is one Donald Pleasence. Just before he was about to combat Michael Myers, and his own irregular reputation, in the Halloween oeuvre, Pleasence is here playing Dr. Nolter. While he makes an interesting acting choice—evil as inertia—it hardly creates terror or suspense. Indeed, one comes away from the film believing our nutty professor is just a misunderstood man of science, not some cruel and heartless carver of human guinea pigs. No, the role of viable villain must be maintained by Tom Baker, whose lethal Lynch becomes the center of the sinister. Of course, just to make things more confusing, the iconic Dr. Who is buried under literal pounds of Elephant Man-like facial foam. As the hideously deformed scoundrel looking for a solution to his own disgusting disfigurement, Baker is sufficiently badass, but you'd have to know it was him under all that plasticine to recognize your favorite Dalek destroyer.
Another problem is the lack of an identifiable lead. The Freakmaker seems to argue for several stars, as each student, each freak, gets their own balanced moment in the sun. So the question becomes, do we root for the fetching redhead with the nice rack, or Pretzel Boy with his obtuse bone joints? Are we to cheer for Brian and the rest of the collegiate brigade, or should the dwarf dimensions of Mr. Burns take center stage? This confused sense of caring really screws up this film. We need a hero to hope for, a palpable Pauline to save from peril. But the script by producer Robert D. Weinbach and Edward Mann just keeps piling on the protagonists. Between the university and the sideshow, there must be a dozen potential champions, yet each one is treated in the same, even-handed manner.
Oscar winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff (for 1948's Black Narcisssus) doesn't help matters much. He seems far more interested in the insertion of time-lapse photography (all part of the plant parameters) than he is in creating drama and tension. His is a psychedelic slice of Kodachrome, a dizzying day-glo world that meshes expertly with the dreary doldrums of post-Fab London. The effects are fine, with the exception of a rabbit-eating tree that makes the man-eating plant in Harry Novak's Please Don't Eat My Mother look like a CGI spectacle. Toss in a little T&A (got to love all those British birds dropping blou for the camera) and a real live freak extravaganza in the middle of the movie (complete with bearded lady, human pin cushion, and a man who can pop his eyes out of their sockets), and we should have a ripe bit of B-movie cheese.
But the end result is more confused than creepy. Cardiff's tone is too matter of fact, and the surreal set pieces—like a party straight out of Browning's version—fail to have the intended impact. The rest of the cast, outside those mentioned, are interchangeable names and faces that don't register beyond a single scene, and the overall purpose behind the experimentation seems sketchy at best. Pleasence makes a single speech in which he argues for the creation of a race of superhumans (sorry Professor, but Dr. Eric Vornoff beat you to that idea years ago), but there are also the Lynch reparations and some stuff about scientific exploration in there to muck it up. Since many of the visuals reverberate with a kind of malignant menace, the movie is not a total washout. But The Freakmaker needed more of its title experimentation, and less of the college-kid exposition, to really become a minor macabre classic. As it stands, it is an interesting addition to the human oddity canon.
Subversive Cinema's release of this rarity is a fine example of digital restoration. Colors are pushed to the forefront (sometimes verging on the dreaded flaring or bleeding), and details are crisp and defined. Indeed, the only really negative aspect of the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is the noticeable age of the print. There is a discernible flatness to the feature and some obvious damage to the negative. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix is only a tad better than the film's original Mono presentation (both are offered here). Still, dialogue is discernible and musical underscoring is expertly modulated.
Perhaps the best bit of news about this release is the wealth of added features to be found. Subversive serves up two audio commentaries, a 30-minute making-of featurette, and a trailer for the film, along with a still gallery and ads for other titles in the company's catalog. Though he is up in years, Cardiff is around for both the alternate narrative and the Q&A. Unfortunately, his discussion with Subversive's Norman Hill (the original moderator's voice was removed for "technical" reasons…) is an interview spread out over the film's running time, not a real scene-specific dissection. Cardiff provides a great amount of detail about his career and the concepts behind the film, but we long for discussion of certain sequences (the freak show, the special effects) that never arrives.
The second commentary with co-writer/producer Robert Weinbach and star Brad Harris is much, much better. These two men are nonstop jabberboxes, and surprisingly enough, Harris is seeing the finished film for the first time. This was a pet project for Weinbach, and he offers up intriguing data about almost every aspect of the film, from the London locale to the use of real-life human oddities. There is a great bit of humor in this track with both men applying self-deprecating jibes to some of the film's failings, but overall, they are proud of this production and Hill (who is along for this discussion as well) does a good job of keeping the comments coming. The featurette covers most of the material mentioned in the commentaries, and the rest of the extras—including a reproduction of the movie poster and some lobby cards—are engaging, but not essential.
Indeed, whether you know it under its original title (The Mutations) or as The Freakmaker, you are bound to be a bit disappointed when revisiting this chloroform version of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Elements of the film that might have seemed inventive 30 years ago are now part of the schlock horror pantheon, and with performances ranging from menace to mundane, this is a very uneven experience. Weinbach and Cardiff have invented their own malformed offspring with this film. Part of it is good old-fashioned exploitation. The rest is just compost.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Subversive Cinema
• Commentary Track with Director Jack Cardiff, Moderated by Subversive Cinema's Norman Hill
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