The Mutations aka The Freakmaker – UK, 1974

‘It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature…… it can be Horrifying! Even to Them!

The Mutations is a 1974 British science fiction horror film directed by Jack Cardiff from a screenplay by producer Robert D. Weinbach and Edward Mann (Island of Terror; Cauldron of Blood; Seizure). The film was also released under the title The Freakmaker.

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Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence), a deranged genetic scientist, is conducting bizarre experiments, combining the DNA of plants and humans. Unfortunately, his eccentric studies have the side-effect of creating disfigured mutants. He strikes up an odd partnership with Lynch, the disfigured owner of a circus freak show, who begs Nolter to help him look ‘normal’.

Nolter makes a bargain, promising to perform the operation in return for Lynch bringing him young human guinea pigs to experiment on. As more and more people go missing, the deformed collective decide to fight back…

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Review:

Though more famous as one of Britain’s greatest ever cinematographers (African Queen and Death on the Nile), Jack Cardiff had several forays into directing, with this being the last.

The film is a rich seventies relaunch of Tod Browning’s Freaks, heavy on style and the exploration of the dark corners of society and not skimping on the unusual-looking sideshow performers, many of whom were played by people with ‘unique qualities’, something which immediately sets the film apart from the cinematic crowd.

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Tom Baker is all but unrecognisable, save for a hat and scarf which bear more than a passing resemblance to his outfit from Doctor Who but delivers a fantastically engaging performance as a man at the end of his tether, approaching a complete breakdown, all the more remarkable due to him being buried under many layers of make-up and prosthetics.

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Pleasence had perfected the role of crackpot scientist in many roles before, though was actually a replacement for the intended Vincent Price. Others in the cast are also worthy of mention; Norwegian Julie Ege (Voluptua from Up Pompeii, Craze and Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires)Brad Harris (Lady Dracula; usually found somewhere in Europe as Hercules, he also served as one of the film’s producers) all nice to see in what is a resolutely British film.

The cast of unusual looking actors, from the pop-eyed to the dermatologically-challenged, includes the wonderful Michael Dunn, a sufferer of dwarfism, who whilst most famous for TV roles had also appeared in Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks and Werewolf of Washington the previous year. Sadly, The Mutations was to be his last screen role.

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Unashamed to wear its influences on its sleeve (there is a re-enactment of the ‘we accept you’ banquet scene from Freaks), it is worth remembering that Tod Browning’s movie was still banned in Britain and had been for some time, meaning that the film was almost unique for the audience at the time. Critics gave the film a rather unkind reception, accusing it of exploiting the actors for cheap scares.

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The score is also an aural feast to the ears: a jazzy, intriguing sonic soup from the renowned British composer, Basil Kirchin. Without the same punchy moral power of Freaks and a slightly undecided plot veering from the mad scientist to the sensitive character development of Lynch too quickly to satisfy the audience’s appreciation of either, The Mutations is still a classic British combination of bizarre visuals and uncompromising ideas.

Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA

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Audio commentary with writer/producer Robert Weinbach and actor/associate producer Brad Harris, moderated by Norman Hill
2nd commentary with director Jack Cardiff and Norman Hill
Featurette: How to Make A Freak: including interviews with Jack Cardiff, Brad Harris, and Robert Weinbach
Still gallery
Talent bios
Trailers
Special packaging includes:
lobby card reproductions
original poster art reproduction
reversal jacket with photo montage on the inside cover

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Other reviews:

“In Freaks, Browning’s clinical direction impelled his audience to feel simultaneous respect and revulsion for the title characters. By comparison, the total lack of sincerity surrounding The Mutations, and Cardiff’s superficial, rudimentary approach to his material, relegate the film to the level of pure exploitation.” Caolin Pahlow, BFI Monthly Film Bulletin (January, 1975)

The Freakmaker is more forgettable than anything truly harmful to the psyche. Though Donald’s performance is truly one for the books, it surely won’t anger a viewer so much as send them into a hazy nap. And the plant footage […] while truly bizarre and unsettling, at least takes us away from the UK suburbanites and their insipid plot lines.” CineBomb

“The episodes in the circus, shot in Battersea Park, are made to feel all the more tawdry by the dreary setting, which conveys nothing but the paucity of imagination and budget. This impression is reinforced by the dismal photography of veteran Paul Beeson who, despite using an array of colour filters, fails to inject any life into the scenes. In contrast, the extraordinary time-lapse plant photography of Ken Middleton looks spectacular even when viewed four decades later; it is just a pity that the rest of the film could not rise to his level.” John Hamilton, X-Cert 2: The British Independent Horror Film: 1971 – 1983

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” … it’s got a lot of agreeably nuts moments in it but, especially in the first half, they’re kept apart by a lot of interminable talky scenes. Nolter bangs on about human-plant hybrids, the sideshow freaks grumble about their working conditions and the students babble a load of old nonsense about LSD trips.” Jumble Sale Frenzy!

“I was entertained, excited, and even mildly shocked by this picture. Donald Pleasence, as the cold-hearted professor, gives an understated performance, but the film as a whole does not hold itself back. Tom Baker wears Elephant Man-style makeup for his role as the professor’s assistant and thug, and he is quite frightening.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers

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Filming locations:

Oakley Court, Oakley Green, Windsor, Berkshire, England
Battersea Fun Fair, Battersea Park, Battersea, London, England
Pinewood Studios, Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, England

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