United Kingdom. Directed by Jack Cardiff, 1974. Starring Donald Pleasance, Tom Baker, Brad Harris. 92 minutes.
Half Freaks, half Frankenstein, half Quatermass Experiment, and half Hammer Horror, Jack Cardiff’s 1974 film The Freakmaker (originally released under the less colorful title The Mutations) is a hybrid of disparate elements that shouldn’t really go together. Donald Pleasance plays the brilliant but deranged Professor Nolter, who believes he’s hit upon the perfect cure for world hunger: combine human and plant DNA, so future generations can photosynthesize their own sustenance. Sadly, he has a penchant for experimenting on unwilling subjects, procured for him by the performers of a carnival freakshow managed by the deformed and cruel Mr. Lynch (an unrecognizable Tom Baker). But then the carnies make the mistake of abducting one of Nolter’s own students, raising the suspicions of her friends, who are also entertaining eminent American scientist Brian Redford (Brad Harris). Can Redford and the undergrads stop Nolter and Lynch, or are they all doomed to a horrifying existence as human Venus flytraps?
The Freakmaker gleefully recycles half-baked ideas from its earlier, better influences and isn’t ashamed of it: one scene outright acknowledges the story’s debt to Freaks. But what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in grue. It’s a sort of missing link between cerebral examinations of physical transformation (and its close cousin, plants that behave like animals, like in The Day of the Triffids or the Genesis song “Return of the Giant Hogweed”) and the later explicit body horror of Cronenberg and Alien. As stomach-churning as the monsters are–there’s nothing pleasant about something that looks like a Sleestak with Audrey Jr. grafted onto its chest–they’re uncomfortably beautiful, as are the dizzying array of genetically-engineered freak plants that don’t walk and talk. Of course, Cardfiff doesn’t quite have budget to do the designs justice, but if you’re a fan of this sort of thing you know when to adjust your expectations.
Pity the rest of the production doesn’t approach the standard set by the production design. Pleasance’s subtle, understated performance is marred by a bad, fake, and entirely unnecessary German accent. Baker struggles to break through the barrier built by a laughably terrible makeup job, but once or twice he really does let ‘er rip with impressive hurricane fury. His physical performance is altogether better, six feet three inches of looming menace but always managing to seem half a foot taller. The rest of the “norms” are forgettable, although Harris fits his generic square-jawed Yankee hero fairly well, and second-string Bond girl Julie Ege understands she’s only here to supply eye candy. Despite the production’s reliance on Freaks, the carnies aren’t quite as distinct as their spiritual predecessors, the exception being Willie “Popeye” Baines. Be warned, he didn’t earn that nickname by exhibiting an affinity for spinach.
But really, we’ve got to go back to the script as the single most flawed element. The lack of originality glares like lens flare, and in the bad way–this isn’t a daring remix of familiar tropes but a lazy retread of things you’ve seen a thousand times before. You can spot every twist coming ten minutes away. If the character development was any thinner, you could see through the actors. Screenwriters Edward Mann and Robert Weinbach try too hard to make the dialog “hip” and “relevant” by shoehorning in lots of casually inappropriate drug references. (The reference to Timothy Leary is worth a laugh, though.)
Overall, The Freakmaker isn’t some lost gem just waiting to be rediscovered; it’s a somewhat-below-standard specimen of cheap exploitation that’s largely notable for its design, its gore and its months-away-from-cult-stardom villain. (Baker would, of course, make his proper début as the fourth Doctor Who later in 1974…and face off against a plant-human hybrid two years later, in “The Seeds of Doom.”) But it’s not entirely devoid of entertainment value, and a perfectly valid option when you have ninety or so minutes you’re not doing anything better with.