The Mutations (1974)

Rating: B

Dir:  Jack Cardiff
Star: Donald Pleasence, Tom Baker, Brad Harris, Julie Ege
a.k.a. The Freakmaker

Back in the autumn of 1974, Baker had just taken over one of the biggest roles on British TV, playing Doctor Who. I wonder if any fans of the show went to see this movie, based on his presence? As shown below, there are superficial similarities, not least in costuming with the same floppy hat, coat and scarf. But they would have been in for quite a nasty shock, getting a thoroughly unpleasant version of the Time Lord, as well as one looking like someone left their action figure on top of the kitchen stove. That’s before you get to the film’s use of genuine “freaks”, in a way clearly inspired by Tod Browning’s film of the same name, and likely provoking a similarly ambivalent response in viewers.

Baker plays Lynch, the hideously deformed – think Elephant Man, a full three years before the play premiered – co-owner of a carnival freak-show, who has teamed up with genetics professor Nolter (Pleasence). Prof. Nolter has agreed to help cure Lynch, in exchange for the latter supplying him with human subjects for his experiments, which involve creating plant-animal hybrids. The generally failed results get returned to Lynch, for exhibition in his sideshow, alongside the more “natural” exhibits like a bearded lady. However, when Lynch swipes two students from Nolter’s class, it draws the attention of visiting scientist Brian Redford (Harris). Lynch’s abrasive attitude is also winning him no friends among his other talent. Matters come to a head after a hybrid escapes and blows the whistle, bringing down the wrath of Redford and pals, as well as the carnies.

On one level, this is a fairly straightforward mad scientist tale, though feels rather ahead of its time. Nolter’s opening lecture talks about cloning, well in advance of The Boys From Brazil bringing the idea to popular entertainment, and also discusses the potential of “genetic manipulation.” Though his prediction we’d be able to re-create a living dinosaur within a decade proved a little off the mark, even if it does foreshadow Jurassic Park. Nolter sports a German accent, for no apparent reason I can see, other than to hint at Nazi-esque tendencies. While Pleasence plays his character nicely under-stated, his loopiness is apparent, right from the moment he casually feeds a rabbit into the maw of one of his carnivorous plants.

There is a certain poignancy in some elements of Baker’s portrayal, albeit never quite enough to make him sympathetic. The most obvious scene sees Lynch visiting a Soho prostitute, and paying her an extra pound to tell him she loves him. The hooker is rather less fazed by his appearance than most people, telling him, “Don’t worry – you can stay. I’ve seen all kinds of things in this game.” She’s about the only person in the whole movie who treats Lynch with any kindness, though it’s of the mercenary kind. Nolter’s partnership with him is strictly business; you can’t exactly imagine them hanging out and enjoying a beer or two together.  It’s much more a Baron Frankenstein/Igor relationship, and that’s how much of the movie plays.

What elevates this – or, at least, makes it memorable – is the presence of the genuine sideshow attractions, something the director now describes as “frankly embarrassing.” These included Alligator Girl Esther Blackmon, Frog Boy Felix Duarte, and Willie “Popeye” Ingram, who gets his name because… Well, here’s a GIF for the curious. These are showcased during a sequence in the middle, when Redford and some student pals visit the carnival and pay their twenty pence to attend the freak-show [it’s an extra 10p to see the star attraction, the “Lizard Woman of Tibet”, who is one of Nolter’s failed experiments]. Yet both there, and in the scenes outside the big top, they are depicted in a matter-of-fact way, as regular people. Which is exactly the way it should be.

Anchoring them, as the one with most professional acting experience, is Michael Dunn as Burns, Lynch’s partner in the attraction, and among the four little people that are part of it (one of whom looks like a fun-sized version of Gerard Depardieu). He had been Oscar nominated in 1966, for his role in Ship of Fools, and had a song-and-comedy nightclub act with actress Phoebe Dorin, which helped him get a recurring role in TV series The Wild Wild West. But Dunn died before this film was released, passing away in August 1973. 

Most notable is the scene where they are having a birthday party on the stage for one of their number. They’re sitting around, chatting, eating cake and singing Happy Birthday, until Lynch shows up. He’s invited to join them, but refuses, spitting with a remarkable lack of self-awareness, “You expect me to sit down with a bunch of freaks?” “You don’t have to sit, Mr. Lynch,” fires back Burns. “You may stand.” There is encouragement from the others, saying “We accept you… He’s one of us” – a likely nod to a scene in Freaks where the performers chant that at their “outsider”. Though it seems less genuine than taunting Lynch for his self-perceived superiority, and he goes berserk, destroying the party.

Director Cardiff had also been Oscar-nominated as a cinematographer four times, winning in 1947 for Black Narcissus. There’s some effective, if perhaps excessive, use of time-lapse photography, to depict how Nolter is speeding up natural processes. The effects are not bad given a total budget of only $400,000. I liked the hideous half-man, half-vegetable thing into which student Tony gets transformed, before returning to visit Eurototty girlfriend, Hedi (Ege). Though I was somewhat disappointed he didn’t say, “I’m no longer Tony, I’m Phil… Chloro-Phil.”

Of course, it all ends in the way we predicted from the very start. Lynch falls prey to his own kind (with an assist from a convenient pack of guard dogs), while Nolter ends up being eaten by one of his own creations, with everything then going up in a fiery blaze. It’s rather surprising the film got past the BBFC, considering it took them forty years to allow the original Freaks to be seen – I suspect the climax of Popeye’s performance may well have been edited out. But it does still stand the test of time, as a largely unique bit of British freaksploitation. It’s certainly the only one to star a Dr. Who, though David Tennant might well be up for the challenge…