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STUDIO: Subversive Cinema
RUNNING TIME: 94 Minutes
• Behind the scenes featurette
• Commentary track with Jack Cardiff
• Commentary track with Robert Weinbach and Brad Harris
• Lobby card inserts and mini-poster
• Still gallery
Over thirty years ago, Robert Weinbach helped produce the only film he ever wrote. Entitled The Mutations, the film was a tribute to Tod Browning’s Freaks and was directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff.
The film made no impact in theaters and vanished almost as quickly from the home video market and has been unavailable since the 1980s before a small studio digitally restored it and released it onto DVD. Just to confuse the one or two people who knew about the film Weinbach insisted the title be changed to The Freakmaker for the DVD release. No matter what title the film chooses to go by, it’s not a particularly good one. The story couldn’t be more formulaic and it doesn’t pay tribute to Freaks as much as it outright steals from it. The real attractions in the film are the make-up effects of the creatures and the “freaks,” which make the film more compelling as a case study rather than entertainment.
First you get taken out by the Puma Man, now you get taken out by Plant Man. Perhaps you should stay away from men with p’s in their names.
Professor Nolter is a university professor who has an unhealthy obsession with the concept of evolution. He is fascinated with the behavior of predatory plants like venus flytraps, and theorizes that the ultimate creature would be a fusion of man and plant. He gives several lectures on the subject to his students that the viewer is allowed to take part in. And yes, watching a fake lecture is as exciting as it sounds.
Nolter isn’t content to just theorize about things and wait for evolution to take its slow course. He believes that through controlled mutations he create a hybrid of man and plant in one day. Naturally no university is going to fund any experiments dealing with gene splicing of this manner, so Nolter befriends the head of a carnival freak show – Mr. Lynch. Lynch has a deformed face but doesn’t serve as a performer at the show. He hates his appearance and aids Nolter in the hope that the professor will find a way to make his face normal.
Mr. Lynch works as the hired muscle for Nolter, kidnapping people to serve as human guinea pigs. Nolter’s earlier experiments don’t turn out so well, resulting in hideous freaks that die soon after their creation. When Nolter finally succeeds in creating a hybrid of plant and human, the creature escapes and is let loose upon the city. Mr. Lynch goes in search of another subject to replace the escaped creature, but his fellow freaks are becoming angry at his condescending behavior towards them and begin to plot their revenge.
The Freakmaker’s plot doesn’t deviate from the standard mad scientist film formula in the slightest. He’s a man who appears normal on the surface but is deeply psychotic outside the classroom. He begins to abduct students left and right, yet no one seems the slightest bit suspicious until the classroom is empty. If you can’t predict whether or not the mad scientist will be undone by his own hubris in a climatic battle with his own creation, you’ve probably never seen a movie before.
Inside the top secret R&D room of the Fruit Rollups Factory.
Horror films often recycle the same plots over and over. The real appeal of the films is how they put their own particular twists on the story. How will the film brutally kill off the villains who deserve what they get? How gruesome will the monster effects be? The twists are the reasons to watch cliché horror films and The Freakmakers has a few unique twists of its own. The make-up effects are great considering the film was done for less than $400,000 back in 1973. A fusion of man and plant doesn’t sound like the type of creature likely to inspire fear in the hearts of men, but the effects artists took inspiration from some off the cooler plants and created a believable beast.
Much can be said of the decision to cast real sideshow attractions in the film. This type of casting was controversial even in the 1930s when Browning made Freaks. In the age of political correctness, the subject is even more delicate. Entire books have been written about the history of freak shows and what it says about human nature when we flock to them. Freaks was a unique film in that it focused on the titular freaks as central characters with the same motivations and feelings as traditional leading actors. The fact the actors were of smaller stature or had no arms and legs was only a superficial aspect of the film that made sense considering the setting of a carnival. That’s not to deny that the casting had a large impact in how the film was marketed and how the film has been remembered.
The Freakmaker was designed as a tribute to Freaks but it’s a poor one. The performers in The Freakmaker are not the central characters of the film. The carnival itself has little purpose in the overall plot of the film and is barely even featured. Instead of using the actors as real characters, the film just parades them out on stage and has them demonstrate their unusual abilities.
The one positive part of this scene is that it attempts to be more than a gawking session. All the performers explain exactly what it is they can do to the audience and sometimes reveal a tidbit or two about their personal lives. It would have been a lot easier for the filmmakers to just parade the performers out for some shock value and to get some controversy, but they took a different approach that makes the freaks the only humanized and developed characters in the film.
Oh great, more Hollywood pretty boys.
The film also contains a few short scenes that show the performers in their off time, including a birthday party celebration. The problem with these scenes is that they’re nearly identical to scenes from Freaks. The performers even bust out the infamous “one of us” line from Freaks when taunting Mr. Lynch. It would have been nice if Weinbach could have written some original scenes for the performers. It’s not like the only thing carnival workers do all day is drink coffee in a wagon and have parties.
The issues raised by The Freakmaker are more interesting and worth more discussion than the film itself. The fact that the movie is largely forgotten is no surprise considering its uninspired nature and its agonizingly slow pace where the action never seems to pick up. Still, there’s a sort of perverse fascination that comes in viewing small films like these. It’s a special feeling that comes about in knowing that you’re part of a very small number of people who have ever laid eyes upon it. Whether or not that prospect seems appealing to people is a matter of personal taste, but no one should feel compelled to see The Freakmaker if they’re looking for an entertaining film.
4.0 out of 10
It’s my party and I’ll go into a destructive rage if I want to.
Subversive Cinema has rescued The Freakmaker from video obscurity and given it a new anamorphic 16:9 transfer for its DVD release. The transfer is well done for such an old and obscure film. Grain is at a minimum throughout the film except for a few stock footage shots which most likely looked awful in the original print. The trailers on the disc have not been touched up, but the grain and discolorations add to the retro feel that comes in viewing old trailers.
7.0 out of 10
I don’t really know what I’m doing here. I just tape some leaves to this and the university gives me a million bucks for research.
Stereo and mono mixes are available on the disc. There’s not a lot of appealing sounds to hear in The Freakmaker. Most of the movie is made up of a headache inducing ‘70s score and loud screams that never match up with the mouths of the persons screaming. Mr. Lynch and one of the plant monsters are difficult to hear properly in some of the noisier scenes and the film doesn’t have any subtitles to help the viewer out. It’s an even sound mix that gets the job done but isn’t going to wow anyone, much like the film itself.
5.0 out of 10
That punk Robert Ripley said WHAT about me?
For such an obscure film the DVD is packed with features. Inside the clear DVD case are three lobby card reproductions and a miniature movie poster. Anyone who hangs this poster on their wall will surely become the most popular person in town due to their awesome taste in unknown 1970s horror films. A few more lobby cards and poster variations are on the disc in a still gallery feature.
The short documentary, “Making A Freak,” features the input of director Jack Cardiff, producer and writer Robert Weinbach, and actor Brad Harris. All three are also featured on commentary tracks for the film. Cardiff approaches the material as if the movie were an award-winning coming of age film. It doesn’t matter how low brow the material is, Cardiff is strictly business. His reflections on the film’s casting reveal that he finds the film to be in poor taste. Weinbach and Harris are a lot more glowing about the feature and pat themselves on the back for getting it made on such a small budget.
Cardiff is given his own commentary track while Weinbach and Harris are together on the other. Cardiff is an experienced director and cinematographer and as such his commentary track is highly technical. He doesn’t care for discussing the film’s story structure or unintentional humor. He is focused on explaining exactly how he created his shots and why he did so. Unfortunately for people interested in this type of track, Cardiff is a quiet person and his microphone was not turned up high enough. His commentary is very hard to hear and often times the film’s original score and dialogue drowns him out even in its muted state.
The commentary by Weinbach and Harris is easier to hear and more jovial as well. For Weinbach, the film was a labor of love and he has a lot of fun talking about his work. Harris is viewing the movie for the first time since its filming and is enamored with his own performance in the film. It’s a shame all three participants couldn’t have recorded a track together. The Freakmakers is not the type of film that warrants three viewings and one good commentary track with input from three people would have been better than two mediocre ones.
6.0 out of 10
You want me to give you a stupid pun for your review? Do I look like the Crypt Keeper to you? Nevermind.
The cover art for The Freakmaker is the original theatrical poster art for The Mutations but with the film’s new title. The bizarre artwork sums up with the film is all about – freaks and bizarre human and plant hybrids. The artwork makes sure to hype up its connection to Freaks and the credentials of its stars – Donald “Halloween” Pleasence and Tom “Doctor Who” Baker.
6.0 out of 10