The Mutations (UK, 1974)
When I first spotted The Freakmaker listed on Shudder, I thought the poster looked familiar even if the name wasn’t. It wasn’t until I googled it that I realised this was the British film known as The Mutations, which I’d been meaning to watch for a very long time.
I dimly remember being frightened by stills from The Mutations as a child. While I have no idea if I actually read anything about the plot, the images of the film’s monstrous hybrids were the literal stuff of nightmare to nine-year-old me. I was too young to see the film at the time, but I hoped to catch up with it one day. Well, it’s taken the best part of 50 years to do so.
The Mutations is currently streaming on Shudder in the UK.
Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasance) is a mad scientist. If you couldn’t work this out from his constant babble of pseudoscience, the German accent would be a dead giveaway. I’m not sure mad scientists were allowed to be anything other than German in British films of this era.
In particular, the professor is obsessed with creating plant/human hybrids. This is going to end world hunger or something, although this isn’t the kind of film to worry about specifics. The professor relies on Lynch (a pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker), a brutish circus owner, to find involuntary test subjects for his experiments in mutation. Because London is such a small town, the first victim turns out to be one of the professor’s offensively groovy students.
The relationship between the professor and Lynch is a fractious one, built on shaky foundations of mutual convenience and lies. Lynch was born with congenital facial deformities and the professor has promised to cure these once he has full control of the human genome. This will be any day now. Until then, however, the professor pays Lynch in failed experiments he can add to his freak show.
Yes, a big part of this film revolves around what was, even in 1974, an anachronistically awful freak show. We join the performers on and off stage as they rail against the indignities perpetrated upon them by Lynch.
Inevitably, we end up with a cycle of students going missing, other students looking for them, and these students going missing in turn as the professor transforms them into creatures beyond recognition. So how long will it be before the professor’s experiments rise up and turn against him? Around 92 minutes, if the listed runtime is to be believed.
Despite being a zero-budget exploitation film, The Mutations was the final directorial outing for Jack Cardiff. Best known as a cinematographer, he had worked on films like The African Queen, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. The 1970s were clearly not kind to Cardiff if he found himself reduced to this. There is some artistic ambition in the time lapse photography of the title sequence, but the rest of the film is a mess.
The pseudoscience in The Mutations is going to give any actual scientist an aneurysm. It is full of pontification about how scientists have no idea how mutations happen, along with thoughts about “The mysterious essence known as nucleic acid”. There is some inexplicable connection between Einstein’s work and the creation of plant/human hybrids. At one point, Professor Nolter unironically quotes Lysenko. Most entertainingly, he demonstrates a ray gun that allows him to reverse “fungal putrefaction”. Most impressively, however, the professor randomly pitches Jurassic Park during one of his lectures some 15 years before Michael Crichton wrote the first line of it.
In a film that already had the shelf-life of fresh fish, the freak show scenes have aged worst. The screenwriters were clearly influenced by Todd Browning’s notorious 1932 film Freaks, casting former freak show performers as Browning did, and even lifting some scenes wholesale. The sequence where we watch the show itself, along with the audience’s braying reactions, makes for especially uncomfortable viewing.
It was interesting to see the performer known as Popeye, however. As the stage name suggests, his schtick was to pop his eyeballs out of their sockets. I remember reading about him in Ripley’s Believe it or Not! as a kid, although I’d never considered there may be footage of his act out there.
In most respects, The Mutations is the worst kind of B-movie schlock. It is cheap, exploitative and doesn’t have an original idea to call its own. The dialogue is terrible, the acting wooden, and everything is so silly as to beggar belief. It’s a bit too nasty to be campy fun and it’s not good enough to be a cult classic. And yet for all these faults, it remains perfectly watchable.
The main saving grace is that The Mutations is never dull. While almost every aspect of the story is painfully obvious, it’s daft and weird enough to engage. At heart, this is a 1950s monster movie given a coating of ’70s sleaze.
The costumes and makeup effects may not win any Oscars, but they’re surprisingly effective given how cheap the film looks. A little imagination goes a long way, and the creature design is the only place you’ll find any real imagination here. It’s possible that their cheapness actually helps, as their lack of symmetry and unnatural proportions make the monsters oddly unsettling.
I am not going to suggest for a moment that you drop everything and watch The Mutations now. There are plenty of horror films that would be better uses of your time. But if, late one night, you find yourself in the mood for something cheesy and all rough edges, you could do worse.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Werewolves Within (USA, 2021)
- Crystal Eyes (Argentina, 2018)
- Super Dark Times (USA, 2017)
- Thirst (Australia, 1979)
- A Ghost Waits (USA, 2020)
- Cemetery of Terror (Mexico, 1985)
- I Came By (UK, 2022)
- 100 Monsters (Japan, 1968)
- Sea Fever (Ireland, 2020)
- Mill of the Stone Women (Italy, 1960)
- Glorious (USA, 2022)
- All the Moons (Spain, 2021)
- Broadcast Signal Intrusion (USA, 2021)
- Incantation (Taiwan, 2022)
- The Gore Gore Girls (USA, 1972)
- Luz: The Flower of Evil (Colombia, 2019)
- Butterfly Kisses (USA, 2018)
- The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (Italy, 1971)
- Saloum (Senegal, 2021)
- The Addiction (USA, 1995)
- Good Madam (South Africa, 2021)
- The Freakmaker/The Mutations (UK, 1974)
- The Long Walk (Laos, 2019)
- Errors of the Human Body (Germany, 2013)
- Eyes of Fire (USA, 1983)
- Caveat (Ireland, 2020)
- The White Reindeer (Finland, 1952)
- His House (UK, 2020)
- Tourist Trap (USA, 1979)
- Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden, 1922)
- Flux Gourmet (UK, 2022)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!