The A to Z of Britsploitation: M is for The Mutations (1974)
It’s not just stars that you find slumming it in the world of Britsploitation. Jack Cardiff was one of the world’s most acclaimed cinematographers and made films like Black Narcissus and The African Queen look very pretty indeed. As with fellow cameraman Freddie Francis, Cardiff’s films as a director are never as prestigious as the ones he photographed. This grimy delight is probably the least prestigious of all. Obviously inspired by Tod Browning’s infamous 1935 movie Freaks (it rips off whole scenes from it), it takes the always rather queasy step of combining latex monstrosities with real-life sideshow freaks.
Added to this is a hearty dash of Life on Earth. Apart from the wobbly green lettering used for the credits (it screams exploitation movie) for the first ten minutes of the film you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching a nature documentary. The credits unfold over some lovely time lapse photography of plants springing to life, accompanied by glistening music from cult fave Basil Kirchin. This educational tone continues quite a while into the film itself, as we witness a lecture from Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence) about genetic mutation. Pleasence’s very serious performance gives the feel of being at a real lecture, though I’ve no idea how scientifically accurate the stuff he spouts is. Among the unimpressed students are an especially mature looking group including two of Britsploitation’s perennial women in peril, Julie Ege and Jill Haworth (pointless trivia: Haworth was the original Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway, so her subsequent career of screaming in movies like this, It! and The Haunted House of Horror must have been a bit disappointing).
Once the lecture finishes we finally approach horror film normality as pretty student Bridget (Olga Anthony) is stalked through a park by two dwarves (Kirchin’s score goes completely bonkers at this point), eventually stumbling into the dastardly arms of the badly deformed Lynch (Tom Baker), wicked proprietor of a visiting freakshow. At the time of making The Mutations Baker was just months away from the big break that would indelibly stamp him on the nation’s consciousness, and Lynch’s scarf and broad-brimmed hat look a little bit familiar. It’s a good job the Bo’ Selecta-ishmake-up job wasn’t carried over to Doctor Whothough.
It turns out that Lynch is in league with Professor Nolter, who is testing out his eccentric genetic theories on a series of live specimens brought to him by Lynch (on the promise that he’ll make Lynch’s face normal). The unfortunate Bridget is the latest. As Nolter waits for the delivery there’s a hilarious moment where he gently strokes a cute fluffy bunny and then nonchalantly shoves it into the hungry maw of a killer plant. Bridget’s about to be transformed into a nameless monstrosity, but before that we get to hear Nolter waffling on about his ideas again. This is the main problem with The Mutations – it’s got a lot of agreeably nuts moments in it but, especially in the first half, they’re kept apart by a lot of interminable talky scenes. Nolter bangs on about human-plant hybrids, the sideshow freaks grumble about their working conditions and the students babble a load of old nonsense about LSD trips.
About a third of the way in the plot stops for a rest as the remaining students (now accompanied by a standard-issue square-jawed American hero played by Brad Harris, a former star of Italian Hercules movies) go to see the freakshow in an attempt to forget about Bridget’s disappearance. Former Oscar nominee Michael Dunn, playing Lynch’s put-upon partner Burns, introduces a selection of human oddities including Bearded Lady, Monkey Woman, Human Pincushion, Frog Boy, Alligator Skin Girl, Human Skeleton, and Pretzel Man. Perhaps the most memorable is Popeye, a Chuck Berry lookalike who can literally pop his eyes out of his skull. But there’s also a brand new freak, the terrifying Lizard Girl of Tibet (Tibet?!), so hideous that all who see her walk out traumatised. But Lynch won’t let the group of chums see this one. Suspicious, the most annoying of the students, goofy Tony (Scott Anthony) goes back late at night to try and catch a glimpse.
This is where the film really starts to take off: the sadly immobile Lizard-Bridget is a fabulously weird creation with its saucer eyes and sucker mouth. But Tony doesn’t get to see it for long as he’s rapidly captured by Lynch and carted off to Nolter, who sets about turning him into one of his beloved hybrids. We eventually see the result when Tony pays a visit to girlfriend Lauren (Haworth). She’s not very pleased to see him, which isn’t surprising as he’s a grotesque Venus Flytrap Man with hands that look like cabbages with mouths. It’s one of the most outrageous monster designs ever, and the scene later on where Tony kills a tramp by sucking him into his gaping chest-mouth isn’t easily forgotten.
Meanwhile, the film gives us its biggest steal from Freaks by shamelessly ripping off that film’s famous banquet scene. It’s Kathy the dwarf’s birthday and the freaks encourage Lynch to join in the celebration, chanting that he’s ‘one of us’. Horrified at the notion that he’s a freak Lynch goes entertainingly berserk, shrieking at the top of his voice and kicking over everything in sight. He then heads off to Soho to prove that he’s a man. The only prostitute he can find who doesn’t recoil from him is Lisa Collings, looking a lot more dishevelled than in Love is a Splendid Illusion. She’s not impressed by his pleas for love and charges him an extra quid to hear her say she loves him. Baker’s performance is impeded a bit by his heavy makeup but he’s still fantastic, callous and pathetic in turn as Lynch. There’s a clear message to the film: The ‘good’ freaks are the ones who’ve learned to be happy as they are, while the bad freak, Lynch, spurns ‘his kind’ and wants to be normal.
The film comes to a climax with the Venus Flytrap man on the loose, Hedi (Ege) in Nolter’s clutches, and the freaks mutinying against Lynch. They literally stab him in the back. And the front. Harris’s presence proves to be completely pointless, and Nolter meets a fabulously grisly end. And if that’s not enough, there’s a (cheesy) twist ending.
The Mutations has been released on DVD in the US as The Freakmaker, but I saw it on a grotty-pictured old VHS. That seems to me exactly the way movies like this should be watched.