Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Mad Science

THE MUTATIONS (1974)

"He'll soon be neither human being nor plant, but with the characteristics and advantages of both: a plant that can move and think, a man who can set down roots." Donald Pleasence and Tom Baker plot and fester.

DIRECTED by Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff, THE MUTATIONS uses the template of Tod Browning's FREAKS and poverty row mad scientist pictures to mix with unsubtle 70's British sleaze and an avant-garde score. University Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence, in a role originally intended for Vincent Price) is experimenting to merge human and plant life. Any unsuccessful subjects are offloaded to Nolter's kidnapping accomplice Lynch (Tom Baker) for a nearby circus "Royal Family of Strange People," which Lynch runs with dwarf Burns (Michael Dunn). The human protagonists - all students from Nolter's class (Tony (Scott Anthony), Lauren (Jill Haworth) and Hedi (Julie Ege)) - and the circus freaks are exploited by the tyrannical Lynch, who hopes that Nolter will cure his own Elephant Man-type deformity. The plan starts to unravel when Tony, after being turned into a human Venus Fly Trap, escapes and ingests a homeless man. With Hedi strapped naked to the operating table, she is saved from Nolter's burning mansion by Dr Brian Redford (Brad Harris), and the freaks take their revenge on Lynch.

Like Browning, real deformed humans are cast for the roles (including Alligator Girl Esther Blackmon and the show-stopping Willie "Popeye" Ingram). Another Browning cue sees THE MUTATIONS lift its party scene directly from FREAKS, and Cardiff must also have been influenced by Universal's 1973 SSSSSSS, which sees herpetologist Dr Carl Stoner (Strother Martin) change young men into King Cobras, whereby botched attempts are exhibited at a circus. Both Nolter and Stoner theorise that humans now need to be in some transformative state, for Nolter to create a "world without hunger," and for Stoner to survive ecological disaster. A deadpan Pleasence mostly recites dialogue from his textbooks and provides an amusing lecture aside referencing genetically recreated dinosaurs, while at home he feeds rabbits to his creations. But Baker is the star: shortly before his Time Lord appointment - and sporting a coat hat and scarf ensemble - Lynch is the Igor to Pleasance's Frankenstein/Dr Moreau. Lynch himself is a freak, but his overpowering self loathing cannot make himself accept his plight; in the film's only touching scene, he visits a prostitute and begs her to say "I love you" for an extra pound.

Scott Anthony - mutated into a Venus Fly Trap - devours his  
monster maker Pleasence in the fiery climax.

The exhibition of real biological oddities can be traced back to the 1630's, when Lazarus Colloredo and his conjoined twin Joannes Baptista toured Europe. "Freaks of nature" as a source of entertainment on film adds another voyeuristic quality, freezing their fa├žade awkwardly in time to watch over and over. FREAKS' original cut of January 1932 was met with disgust - one woman at a test screening threatened to sue stating it caused her miscarriage - and remains the only MGM release to have been pulled from circulation before completing its engagements. The picture was also banned in Britain for thirty years, and effectively brought Browning's career to a premature end. However, FREAKS has enjoyed a positive re-evaluation over the years, unlike Michael Winner's 1977 Universal opus THE SENTINEL, which controversially featured deformed humans as denizens from hell. Amid THE MUTATIONS relentless dour atmosphere, when Lynch is killed by flying switchblades then devoured by Nolter's hounds, the "Strange People" at least have a form of closure.