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
The Mutations, a 1974 film directed by award-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff, opens with some impressive stop motion photography, showing us clouds speeding by overhead, drops of water hitting the ground in slow-motion, and plants sprouting from seedlings to full bloom in a matter of seconds. Based on these initial images, which are positively beautiful, you’d never know The Mutations was going to be a movie about circus freaks.
Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence) spends his days teaching biochemistry at a prestigious British University, and his nights conducting barbaric experiments, attempting 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 unsuspecting students to use as test subjects (almost 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’s come to study Nolter’s work, may just bring the Professor’s ghastly research to an end.
The Mutations is a bizarre film, something that’s obvious right from the get-go. Shortly after the opening credits, 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 (and we can understand why; this scene plays on far too long, and is very dry). From there, we watch as Lynch, with the help of several midgets from his freak show, stalks a pretty red-head (Olga Anthony) walking through the park, eventually grabbing her and dragging her off to his carnival for safe keeping. We even get to see Nolter feed a live rabbit to a carnivorous plant, not once, but twice!
Then, of course, we have the freaks, all of whom we meet later that night at the carnival. A few are obviously aided by make-up, including the bearded lady (Fay Bura) and the Monkey Woman (Madge Garnett). Others, however, 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 a guy who went by the name of Popeye (Willie Ingram), and could make his eyeballs pop in and out of their sockets at will. Based on its sideshow attractions alone, The Mutations has a lot in common with Tod Browning’s 1932 picture, Freaks, though it ultimately 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 far as the two leads are concerned, 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 entire carnival. Throughout the movie, he berates and abuses the various sideshow attractions, and at one point even pushes a midget off of some stairs. Alas, despite Baker’s bravado performance and a handful of interesting scenes, The Mutations plods along at a snail’s pace for much of its running time. Though fun in spurts, The Mutations is often quite dull, and not even the freaks can rescue it from mediocrity.