Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Mutations (aka The Freakmaker) (1974)

Opening with a sombre and quite beautiful sequence of time-lapse photography of various plants and flowers growing and blooming, this seventies curio is an odd beast indeed. Starring the likes of Donald Pleasance and Tom Baker alongside genuine sideshow freaks and some ludicrous special effects makeup, it's an often shockingly brutal horror film that also carries a very strange atmosphere of creepy camp. The soundtrack is a work of trippy, demented genius, and heightens the feeling of unease that permeates the film.

Half sci-fi B movie, half grotesque horror film, The Mutations has moments of unintentional hilarity due to a mad script and some delicious ham in the acting, but it also boasts many moments that are deeply uncomfortable to watch. Partially inspired by (and nicking a bunch of scenes and ideas directly from) Tod Browning's infamous Freaks (1930), The Mutations features a number of real 'freaks' and sideshow performers amidst its cast.
In this age of politically correct film and depictions of disability and physical deformity, a viewing of this film now feels even more exploitative than it was seemingly intended to be. The pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker, as the Elephant-man styled Lynch character, is at once frightening and sympathetic, driven by demented urges and the desire to be 'normal', a feat which Pleasance's character (Dr. Nolter) has promised him in return for new subjects to experiment on.
The cast of 'normal' characters are unconvincing, bland and rather stupid, giving the inhabitants of the freak show (and indeed the hideous monstrosities created by Dr Nolter) kinda come across as the good guys in all of this. The film features some shocking scenes of violence and some memorable effects jobs, but it's hard to figure out if they're memorable because they're good or memorable because they're ridiculous.

The ending is a little sudden, but the build-up to it is paid off well with gore, screaming and mad plant-people. There are some great ideas during the film (such as the shot where Dr. Nolter cuts into a branch on one of his hybrid plants, which then bleeds as he implants a cutting from elsewhere), but it's an uneven piece that never quite settles on one direction or ambience. It's entertaining, uneasy viewing that carries all the hallmarks of the sort of obscure gem sad old nerds like me crave.

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