Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Freakmaker (1974) review


Donald Pleasence (Professor Nolter), Brad Harris (Brian Redford), Julie Ege (Hedi), Tom Baker (Lynch), Michael Dunn (Burns)

Directed by Jack Cardiff

The mad Professor Nolter conducts bizarre experiments turning humans into carnivorous plants. At first using freaks from a traveling carnival, the unhinged scientist then moves on to his own college students kidnapped by the deformed Lynch, the proprietor of the carnival.

While there have been several movies which have utilized real freaks of nature as a device for "horror", one of the best is this unusual little British exploitation monster movie. It's one of the movies I saw on Shock Theater back in the late 70's and early 80's as a little kid. Only then, it was called THE MUTATIONS. What's most impressive about this low budget curiosity is the astonishing cast both in front of, and behind the camera.

Jack Cardiff, an enormously successful and multi award winning cinematographer for such big time movies as BLACK NARCISSUS (1947), WAR & PEACE (1956), THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) and later on a personal favorite, CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984). Cardiff also directed some memorable large scale movies such as THE LONG SHIPS (1964) and DARK OF THE SUN (1968). With such an impressive resume as Cardiff possessed, it's curious why he would want to tackle a low budget monster movie with a high exploitation potential.

On the 'making of' featurette found on the exceptional Subversive Cinema DVD Cardiff explains the story of toying with nature was what attracted him to the script. He also agrees that the film is sorely in need of some additional editing. Several scenes throughout the film (including the very beginning) seem to take a bit of time to get moving. Although Cardiff didn't handle the photographic duties on this one, the work of Paul Beeson gives the film an interesting color palette.

Shot for around $400,000, Cardiff pays a great deal of tribute to Tod Browning's FREAKS (1932). The most obvious homage being the "One of us" dinner scene. It's done in a slightly different fashion in that it's another freak (Lynch, played by Tom Baker) they are referencing, although he isn't all that willing. There is a plethora of sideshow performers showcased here and they are easily the most fascinating aspect of the production. Towards the end, the film again references FREAKS, this time its terrifying conclusion.

Cardiff was adamant about making sure the film treated the freaks in a respectable manner and not as a means of making money off of their misery. The film also calls to mind the 1960 grue spectacular, CIRCUS OF HORRORS starring Anton Diffring. Pleasence also has a supporting role here as well.

Pleasence is the demented Dr. Nolter who secretly conducts experiments splicing human genes with those of plants, particularly venus flytraps. The curator of a traveling carnival, Lynch (Baker), a deformed man himself, obtains victims for Nolter's experiments. He assists the mad doctor as he is promised to be cured of his deformity. The FREAKS dinner scene variant mentioned above is one of the best in the movie as it shows Lynch has nothing but contempt for his condition and for the special people under his employ. His comeuppance at the end is suitably gruesome.

Donald Pleasence prepares to feed one of his creations a live rabbit

Donald Pleasence was quickly becoming a horror movie mainstay with such appearances in films like DEATH LINE (1972), FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1973) and the terrible omnibus, TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973). Of course, he would soon become one of horror cinemas most recognizable faces after appearing in John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN in 1978. His role here as the deranged Dr. Nolter is far more subdued than his later Loomis portrayal. Asking the directors permission, Pleasence purposely played his role low key, going against the typical style of the familiar mad scientist role. He plays it the way you would expect a real scientist would.

Brad Harris will be recognized from his numerous sword & sandal movies and other European action pictures he appeared in. Some of his roles during the 60's include GOLIATH AGAINST THE GIANTS (1961), SAMSON (1961) and THE FURY OF HERCULES (1962). He also starred in a string of successful European spy pictures. He also featured in a brief surge of sword and sandal movies in the early 80's with the awful movies, HERCULES and THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS (both 1983). Harris was an associate producer on THE FREAKMAKER (1974).

Julie Ege will also be very familiar to anyone who has seen more than a few Hammer movies. A former pin up girl, Ege featured in the Bond movie, ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969) and soon landed a role as a cavegirl in Hammer's CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT (1971). She then co-starred in Hammer's rowdy and action packed Gothic horror-kung fu hybrid, THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974). A very humble actress, she died from cancer in 2008.

Tom Baker (left) and Micheal Dunn (right)

Tom Baker, unrecognizable under layers of make up, was well known as one of the most popular actors to take the mantle of DR. WHO, one of the longest running television series of all time. He also played a vengeful, yet doomed character in THE VAULT OF HORROR (1973). Baker also found time to turn in a devilishly sinister, stand out performance as Koura, the main villain in the superb THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974).

Michael Dunn, who plays Burns, will be best remembered for his role as the mad, deviously menacing Dr. Miguelito Qixote Loveless on the awesome, ahead of its time sci fi/fantasy/western series, THE WILD, WILD WEST (1965-1968). Dunn passed away shortly before THE FREAKMAKER (1974) was released. He also had a supporting role in the dreadful exploitation non-classic, FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS (1973). In that film, Dunn played a necrophilic graverobber.

Filled with a truck load of exploitation value, THE FREAKMAKER (1974) is one of the more curious and unusual British horror pictures. The special edition from Subversive is a lovingly compiled DVD package. As with all of their releases, it's packed with extras including several lobby cards and a poster reproduction. The animated menus are awesome as are the features. It's a shame that this wonderful DVD company is no longer around. They were truly a wild cinema fans DVD establishment. They also released an extras packed edition of one of the more ridiculous horror movies, the hilarious and totally bizarre, BLOOD BATH (1975). Jack Cardiff's THE FREAKMAKER is a ghoulish carnival ride well worth buying a ticket for.

This review is representative of the Subversive Cinema DVD.

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