Director: Jack Cardiff
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Tom Baker, Brad Harris, Julie Ege. UK. 1h 32m
I’d just like to give a heads up, that I mean no disrespect with my terminology in this review. I am utilizing a lot of the terminology used in the movie, purely to keep it synced.
This movie feels like a mashup between Andy Mulligans insane indie horror Blood (1973) and the early cult classic The Freaks (1932) by Tod Browning. Combining newfangled science fiction ideas with unthinkable genetic splicing with animals and plants. The film is spiced up with trippy psychedelics, a touch of nudity and fascinating stop motion visuals, and it makes for a very interesting psychotropic creature feature that has to be seen to be believed, and all from acclaimed academy awarding winning director Jack Cardiff who gave us such classics as The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Narcissus (1947).
Donald Pleasence stars as Dr Nolter, a very dry character who has the brilliant capabilities of making groundbreaking scientific machines that can reverse aging, but seems more obsessed with splicing plants and human materials to produce freakish mutants in sadistic experiments. The finished projects are often cast off to his partner in crime Lynch (Baker) as genuine Sideshow Freaks, sadly they are often so malformed they are unable to survive for long but they do draw visitors hard earned cash.
The malformed Lynch, like most Igor characters has a few questionable issues, he’s mostly used for his brawn and stalking abilities, but running circus of freaks is his biggest asset for Nolter. Unfortunately he strives to deny his own obvious deformities and sets himself away from the others in his circus, often teasing and lashing out at them cruelly. There’s an unspoken bond that enforces his connections with Dr Nolter as he believes the Dr will make him “normal”.
Lynch does have a slight connection with Burns (Dunn) a small man and ringmaster of the circus, they work together in collecting unsuspecting victims from the local area, despite Burn’s disapproval he does what his boss insists but he keeps quiet when Lynch takes the victims to Nolter’s beautifully outlandish lab filled with incredible plants that grow hair, bleed and are often fed live cats. The doctor does reach out to his peers for validation, notably Dr Redford (Harris) but only reveals the tip of the iceberg of his insane experiments.
The shit really hits the fan when Redford and some really attractive students turn up at the Circus hoping to see a mysterious new attraction, after being wowed by a fairly lengthy show, displaying the top freaks of the day on both sides of the pond. This scene is often seen as being distasteful by modern standards, but I feel it really gives the cast a chance to express themselves and give insight into them as human beings, the members includes the human pretzel, popeye and the human pin cushion. The ringmaster turns the students and Redford away, but one of the more curios students, Tony (Anthony) has a wonderful idea of heading back after dark to see this weird secret specimen but little does he know that his actions will pull most of the students close to the operating table and each of them become potential specimens for future freak making.
For such controversial subjects, controlling human evolution, purposeful mutations and (basic) eugenics, the film suggests that better mutants level up, it’s nothing new, we all know about evolution but making people helpless by combining them with a cabbage is a bit off, but the film doesn’t stop being risky there it does add in a fair amount of tripping psychedelic and nudity although it doesn’t go as far as being softcore, It gets close when Lynch decides that he’s going to visit a prostitute but in the pitiful scene it seems he’s only there for a cuddle and some kind words, it’s a huge reflection on the complications of his characters struggles.
Freakmaker seems to insist on pushing itself into a little box that only has room to be a thriller that borders horror on occasions, rather than being a science based horrific movie with all opportunities to create foreboding and unforgettable body horor, with true alien monsters that wreak havoc it takes a slightly different approach as the one crucial monster in the finale is quite human at heart and just wishes to end the madness, but still looks like a not so scary cabbage man.
It’s quite interesting to see another film made so many years after Tod Brownings masterpiece, that deals with a similar group of people having to make a living expressing themselves through their rare genetic differences. However in Freakmaker at least they have a stronger voice as they are able to talk about their differences and the issues they have with their mutations, the alligator woman talks about her children, the human pretzel makes a few jokes about his legs working well. They are shown getting together for a chat and have their humanity restored, but it can’t be denied that sometimes it appears they are simply paraded for amusement sake.
It has to be mentioned that there are two striking scenes which seem almost pulled from the 1930s classic, a birthday party which is ruined by Lynch when he decides to lash out after being invited to join in, the group start chanting that he’s one of them and that they accept him. This is a spitting image of the wedding party in the Freaks “Gobble gobble, gobble gobble. We accept her. One of us, one of us.” In a later scene when they decide to stick up for themselves against Lynch and his vicious rage, they all start closing in on him silently and threatening like the rise against a tyrant, Cleopatra…But I don’t feel it was the intention to rip the classic.