The Freakmaker (it also skulks around the dollar-bin under the name The Mutations) was the last directorial effort of Academy Award winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Cardiff deserves some sort of lifetime achievement award just for sticking around. He worked on his first film as an actor in 1918. It was a British silent melodrama called My Son, My Son. The last film he was on was the 2005 Pinewood Studios short Lights2. During this heroically long lived career, he worked behind the camera on everything from Hitchcock's Under Capricon and the classic The African Queen to Conan the Destroyer and Rambo: First Blood Part II. From 1953 to 1974, Cardiff directed about twenty flicks. Most notably, he helmed the Oscar winning adaptation of Sons and Lovers. This, however, strikes me as a bit of an outlier. Most of his flicks were genre cheapies or pseudo-exploitation swinging 60s flicks like Girl on a Motorcycle (aka Naked Under Leather) and, the subject of this review, The Freakmaker.
As far as cheese horror goes, I actually enjoyed The Freakmaker. The plot is wonderfully goofy. Donald "Loomis" Pleasance plays a mad scientist who is convinced that he can induce mutations that will produce a new race of man that will combine the best qualities of the plants and human. "A plant that can move and think," he says, describing his vision to his obligatory malformed lab assistant (Tom Baker, the 1980s Dr. Who). "And a human that can put down roots." Now, to me, this sounds like a formula for a carrot man who walks around in circles. But that's why he's the mad scientist and I'm just some guy who blogs about horror stuff.
As you might guess, making human plants (humants or plamen, depending on you point of view) is a real trick proposition. It requires human subject – healthy and good looking, the doctor is always careful to specify – and you're going to get a lot of duds before hitting on just the right mix of human and Venus flytrap. But where will Dr. Greenjeans get his subjects and how will he dispose of the failed hybrids? That's where his faithful, horribly mutilated lab assistant comes in. The doctor employs a deformed heavy from a local carnival to kidnap his victims. Those subjects who don't make the cut get deposited in the carnival's freakshow.
The movie actually unfolds as two interconnected parallel plots. First, we get the mad doctor's experiments and their effects. This is a pretty standard, B-grade plot with slight nods to the post-60s context with lectures about how we're all mutants, man. The other, and more interesting plot, is an extended homage to the Tod Browning's superlative Freaks. This second story centers on the deformed lab assistant's self-loathing as a freak. He was, we find out, once a freakshow attraction. On finding the doctor could cure him of his deformity, he agreed to do to the doctor's dirty work. But the other freaks, all played by genuine sideshow performers, resent the brutal behavior of the assistant. He hates them because they remind him of his own freakish existence. Not only do we get real human oddities (including the fascinating "pretzel man," who suffers from a condition in which the bones grow in twisted, melted-wax like formations), we get a freak party scene, a toast to "one of us," and a final scene that involves freaks tossing knives at their enemy. As a huge fan f the Browning flick, I have a special fondness for this sort of thing.
Is the movie worth it for viewers not pitifully over-enamored of Freaks? That's going to depend on your cinema cheese threshold. With it less than special effects, clunky acting, and goofy plot, I suspect the cinematically lactose intolerant will find little to like here. But, it midnight movie absurdity is your cup of tea, then this might deserve a spot on your queue. Using the internationally recognized Communes of the Canton of Thorigny-sur-Marne Film Rating System, I'm giving The Freakmaker a fine Dampmart rating. But then I might just be some sort of Freaks freak.