Sunday, January 6, 2013

#874. The Mutations (1974) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Jack Cardiff

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Tom Baker, Brad Harris

Tag line: "It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature... it can be HORRIFYING!"

Trivia: The role of Professor Nolter was originally intended for Vincent Price

A 1974 film directed by award-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff, The Mutations opens with some impressive stop motion photography. Clouds speed by, drops of water hit the ground in slow-motion, and plants sprout from seedlings to full bloom in a matter of seconds.

Based on these initial images (which are enchanting), you would never know that The Mutations is a movie about circus freaks!

By day, professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence) teaches biochemistry at a prestigious British University, and spends his nights conducting barbaric experiments, trying to build the “perfect being” by introducing plant DNA into the human body. Assisted by the deformed Lynch (Tom Baker), who runs the local carnival, Nolter abducts his own students to use as test subjects, nearly all of whom end up so badly mutated that they become attractions in Lynch’s freak show.

But the arrival of Brian Redford (Brad Harris), an American who has come to study Nolter’s work, may just bring the Professor’s ghastly research to an abrupt end.

The Mutations is, from the get-go, a bizarre film. Shortly after the opening, we sit in on one of Professor Nolter’s classes, listening to him spout off about the majesty of plant life as his weary students struggle to stay awake. Alas, we the audience have the same problem. This scene plays on far too long, and is very dry.

From there, we watch as Lynch and several little people from his freak show stalk a pretty red-head (Olga Anthony) as she's walking through a park.  Eventually, they grab her and drag her off to the carnival for safe keeping. There's even an early scene where Nolter feeds a live rabbit to a carnivorous plant, not once, but twice!

After this, we're introduced to the freaks that populate Lynch's carnival. A few are obviously aided by make-up, including the bearded lady (Fay Bura) and the Monkey Woman (Madge Garnett). Most others, though, are the real deal, like the Alligator Girl (Esther Blackmon), whose body is covered in scales; and the Pretzel Boy (Hugh Baily), born with badly twisted limbs. Yet the one I found most disturbing was Popeye (Willie Ingram), who could make his eyeballs pop in and out of their sockets at will. By using actual carnival performers, The Mutations has a lot in common with Tod Browning’s 1932 picture, Freaks, though it lacks that film’s compassion. Whereas Browning wanted the audience to sympathize with his so-called “freaks”, The Mutations seeks only to exploit them for shock value.

As for the film's two leads, Donald Pleasence is uncharacteristically subdued as Nolter, and seems bored with the whole affair, while Tom Baker does a solid job as the eternally pissed-off Lynch, the former freak who now runs the whole show. Throughout the movie, Lynch berates and abuses his sideshow attractions, and at one point even pushes a little person off some stairs.

Despite Baker’s bravado performance and a handful of interesting scenes, The Mutations ultimately plods along at a snail’s pace for much of its runtime. Fun in spurts, The Mutations is often dull, and not even the freaks can rescue it from mediocrity.

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