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The Mutations
(a.k.a. The Freakmaker)
(1973)
 

Director: Jack Cardiff                     
Cast:
Donald Pleasence, Tom Baker, Brad Harris


I can't be absolutely sure, but I think it's very likely that the creators behind The Mutations were trying - intentionally or unconsciously - to recreate the feel of those old b&w horror movies from the '50s that independent studios like American - International released. Thinking back to those movies, I don't think anyone would call the majority of them genuinely good movies. Yet a lot of them are still worth a look, because they still have the important entertainment factor to them. There's a sense of fun mixed in with the horror that even '50s audiences must have picked up on. Nowadays that sense of fun from these movies is more of a camp kind, but whatever kind it is, fun is fun all the same. The Mutations isn't that much fun at all. It's so serious in its attitude, so lifeless, that the only feelings that you get from it are dreariness and contempt for itself.

Even if the movie had a sense of fun, I think there would still be a problem with the style of the movie. I can accept a '50s style movie that was made in the '50s, but I have problems with a '50s style movie made in the '70s. Though it's just a two decade length, these two eras have a great deal of difference to them. Even seeing The Mutations in the '00s, the style of the movie seems out of place. If the movie had a '70s attitude towards it, I could accept it, because it's a movie from the '70s, and I would accept such an attitude. As the movie is now, it just seems old fashioned and silly, and not in a way that can be appreciated as camp. The fun from those old '50s movies came across in an unlaboured way. Here, the attitude seems planned and artificial, and not much fun.

The first few minutes of the movie is composed of shots of clouds moving though the night sky, microscopic views of cells, and time-lapse photography of seeds sprouting and growing into full sized plant. No, we don't hear any narration during this, nor do the credits come on until several minutes have passed. Then each credit is slowly put up over this footage. Perhaps this incredibly tedious moment was intended as not only a taste of how the rest of the movie will pass, but as a warning not to watch any further, so that you'll be forced to watch the rest of the tedium in order to find out what happens.

To tell the truth, it's not like we're dealing with a complicated screenplay here. There's this Dr. Noller guy (Pleasence), a biochemistry professor who lectures at some unidentified university in England. He has a fascination with odd life forms, mainly that some aquatic animals have some characteristics of plants, and plants like Venus fly traps have some animal characteristics. Who knows what the future will bring? Natural mutations are the key to evolution, but Noller is interested in inducing mutations, and has already been mixing plant DNA with animals, and animal DNA in plants to make bizarre creations, like a giant growling Venus fly trap that likes to snack on rabbits. But he's long been past that, and has hired Lynch (Baker), a circus show freak with a deformed face, to kidnap young healthy students for him to experiment on in return for researching a cure for his deformity.

Aside from the last few minutes of the movie, that above description pretty much covers the entire plot of the movie. Oh, sure, there's a lot more that happens in the movie, but it's the kind of stuff that could easily be cut out without the slightest consequence to the movie. Dr. Noller blabs on about his theories for minutes on end. Some of the students wander around a crowded airport for several minutes to pick up a visiting professor - his eventual use in the movie is one that could have easily been played by one of the students who came to pick him up. Later, the same students decide to go to the carnival to see the freak show that's been advertised. They sit down to watch the freaks (the opening credits state, "Special sideshow attractions presented by Walter Lwancus and sons") and we're shown an actual frog boy, human skeleton, alligator woman, etc. instead of creations made by the makeup department. Whoopie. The only reason these and other inconsequential scenes are here is to stretch out the movie to feature length. There's one scene where the depressed Lynch goes to a prostitute and hires her to tell him he loves her. In a better movie, this scene could have fleshed out the character, instead of coming across here not just as padding, but a cheap way to show some skin.

If you are a fan of Dr. Who, and plan on seeing this movie anyway just for Tom Baker, think again. In his makeup and speaking in a rough voice, it's pretty hard to recognize him. Besides, he gives a very dull and understated performance. He can take comfort in the fact that his performance is at least miles better than Pleasence's. He puts absolutely no emotion in his performance at all. It's true that most of the movie just has him commenting on things instead of getting into any real action, but you'd think that even a line like, "In her vital cells lies the mystery of all life," could show his character has some interest or excitement in his work. Not for Pleasence - he just stares his glazed eyes into the camera (which is sometimes tilted for no reason) and mutters his lines like he's saying them under hypnosis. Strangely, the actors who do the best job in the movie are the real life freaks. Though they are not professional actors, their performances are good enough to be convincing.

There are a couple of curious scenes with the freaks. In one scene, the freaks are having a celebration feast, and they tell the rejecting Lynch that, "You're one of us!", saying it over and over. If you think this sounds familiar, you are right - this scene, plus the movie's nighttime climax, unabashedly rips off the famous movie Freaks, which was also about deformed people in a carnival environment. All I can conclude about this plagiarism is that the only possible explanation is that the filmmakers were not confident about the original material they gave the movie. We have a strident score that sounds like a jazz band warming up before their show - and drunk. The two half plant/half obnoxious college student monsters the movie gives us look so bad, I'm sure that few people who saw this movie in 1973 laughed them off the screen. While the monsters in '50s movies looked as bad, at least the directors were courageous to display them at length on the screen instead of keeping them hidden or in the dark except for a few brief seconds.

Throughout the movie, a crude and uncomfortable feeling keeps popping in its ugly head. Of course, much of that comes in the way the real life deformed people are treated, just brought into the movie to give the audience a cheap thrill. But there's also the shabby production values, which gives us reflections of the camera crew in windows and big continuity goofs, all photographed in the same shade of murkiness. There's little sign of effort on part of the crew, no sign anyone gave a damn about any part of the movie. Maybe everyone involved saw this movie as a freak, a big mistake, and reacted with their first natural instinct.

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See also: Brainwaves, House Of Usher, The Resurrected

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