The Mutations [The Freakmaker] (1974)

This is one of those films which has a somewhat alarming reputation.

I suppose they were fairly common in the Seventies.  Particularly among horror films.

Although I supposed it was just a little more common in Italian films rather than British ones.

After all those Italian Cannibal and Zombie films, one might assume this one got its reputation for excessive gore and violence, and other such general nastiness.  Now there is a bit of gore and a bit more nudity, but not an excessive amount of either.

Instead we have something real which is disturbing for quite a few reasons, not the least of which is that The Mutations‘ willingness to exploit something which will leave most of us feeling decidedly uncomfortable.

Something which deliberately recalls one of the oddest — and most disturbing — horror films of the Thirties.

Donald Pleasance plays Professor Nolter, a mild but brilliant man dedicated to discovering — and speeding up — the next step in human evolution.

Naturally, this involves kidnapping lots of beautiful young girls.

It always does, right?

He’s got the help of the head of the freak show at the local carnival — the dwarf, Barnes — as well as the brutish Lynch (Tom Baker) who suffers from a disfiguring disorder which he hopes the Professor will be able to cure.

As the good Professor believes that the future lies in plant/animal hybrids (a somewhat curious notion as the two lines bifurcated very early in the history of life) so his lab is full of all sorts of icky plants, including one very silly looking cousin of The Little Shop of Horrors‘s Audrey Jr which he occasionally feeds by stuffing rabbits down its gullet.

And, of course, his final creature is far more bizarre.

It is the freak show which is by far the most disturbing part of this film, however.

The Freaks are played by genuine sideshow freaks, and are portrayed as creepy and monstrous in some of the sequences.

If this sounds familiar, you are probably thinking of Todd Browning’s 1932 film.  Quite obviously, Jack Cardiff, the director of The Mutations, was thinking of it as well as he repeats the classic “one of us!” scene from the original and even throws in a familiar act of revenge (even if he does end it in a more mundane sort of way).

While Tom Baker’s self-hating Lynch is as nasty a villain as you could ask for (his big floppy hat and long coat make him look suspiciously like the career defining role  he was about to take on), ironically the part was originally written for “The man with two faces,” a famous freak who actually looked just like Tom’s makeup.  I have to wonder if the gentle, real-life freak who was loved by all the children in his home town, refused because the black despair Lynch felt for his disfigurement was so much at odds with his own outlook on life.

I know I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking him to take on the role.

The Mutations is not as hated as Death Train (aka Raw Meat), which, even though it is nowhere near as well known, enjoys a similarly uncomfortable reputation — even if they are both pretty tame by today’s standards (even with a bit of nudity thrown in the mix).

But I doubt if anyone would think of making a movie like this one today.  it’s actually rather straightforward and unsensational for the most part. with Donald Pleasance deliberately underplaying the good professor at his own suggestion.

Which does leave you wondering what this one would have been like if they’d got Vincent Price as they’d originally planned.

It isn’t a classic, despite what some people say.

But it is well made, icky in places and quite creepy.

But I know I won’t be in any hurry to see it again.

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