Friday, November 25, 2016

Forgotten Films: The Mutations (1974)

I did a 'Random Movie Trailer' post about The Mutations a while ago, since then, I've actually managed to see it in full, so I thought I'd round of our week of schlock by having a closer look at it.  One of a plethora of independently produced horror movies that appeared in the early seventies, as Britain's established horror producers, Hammer, Amicus and Tigon slid into terminal decline, The Mutations is curiously old fashioned.  Whilst other independent horror movies often looked forward to the slaher and gore movies of the eighties and nineties, The Mutations looks backward, clearly drawing inspiration from the Universal Frankenstein films and, most significantly, Tod Browning's notorious Freaks, with its combination of a traditional mad scientist plot with a freak show background.  But, it was the seventies, so there were also the, now obligatory, nude scenes. 

The film involves crazy university lecturer Donald Pleasance moonlighting as a crazy scientist attempting to create a new life form which fuses plant and animal, using his unwitting students as experimental subjects.  The victims are abducted for Pleasance by a group of circus freaks, led by real life dwarf Michael Dunn (who, along with Skip Martin, enjoyed a long career in such roles) and a pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker wearing heavy make up which, I assume, is meant to represent acromegaly   Whilst Dunn is a less than enthusiastic participant in the abductions, Baker, who runs the freak show, is a full partner in Pleasance's nefarious activities, even assisting him in his lab.  Pleasance has apparently promised Baker that he will cure his deformities in return for his assistance, (in much the same way that Karloff's Dr Neimann promised J. Carroll Naish's hunchback that he'd rectify his spinal problems in 1944's House of Frankenstein). 

Inevitably, the experiments Pleasance carries out in his impressive, Frankenstein-style lab, (situated, naturally, in his old dark house), don't turn out well and tend to end up in Baker's freak show as new exhibits.  These failures include an unfortunate female student who becomes a 'Lizard Woman' and her boyfriend, who ends up as the magnificently barmy 'Venus Fly Trap Man', after he unwisely investigates her disappearance.  It is the latter creature (a bizarre looking rubber suit monster whose chest opens up to entrap his prey, whose life force he absorbs) that provides the film's climax, crashing through the skylight in Pleasance's lab, to attack the mad scientist just as he is conducting his latest experiment upon Julie Ege.  Baker, meanwhile, falls foul of the dogs which guard Pleasance's house, after the rest of the freak show members. led by Dunn, switch sides.

Directed by celebrated cinematographer Jack Cardiff, (who directed a number of schlocky genre movies in-between cinematography gigs), The Mutations, not surprisingly, looks a lot better than its low budget would suggest. Despite its somewhat traditional subject matter and plot structure, the film has a surprisingly seedy feel, with its landscape of  cramped student bedsits and damp and wintry looking London locations, including an out of season Battersea Park playing host to the freak show, creating a sense of urban isolation and loneliness.  Despite living in the middle of a teeming city, people can vanish without anyone noticing for days, or be chased through deserted residential streets without finding help or sanctuary.  The sleaziness culminates in Baker's desperate visit to a Soho prostitute, a sequence which becomes surprisingly poignant, with the lifetime of rejection and isolation which motivates the freak show owner laid bare.  Indeed, despite being virtually unrecognisable under his heavy make up, Baker gives a spirited performance throughout the film, whether drawing unexpected audience sympathy in the Soho scene, or furiously rejecting the overtures of friendship from the 'freaks'.  Pleasance gives a relatively restrained performance in the sort of role he could probably have played in his sleep by 1974, going for understated insanity rather than full blown craziness, in his portrayal of the scientist.

However, despite the film's many virtues, which include some good acting performances, decent production values, good pace and, for their day and budget, reasonable special effects, The Mutations remains problematical.   Despite the fact that it eventually makes the denizens of the freak show sympathetic characters, it can't obscure the fact that it also exploits them for horror value, presenting them as being as 'unnatural' as Pleasance's creations.  From their first appearance, when Dunn and a fellow dwarf follow and abduct a girl in the park, they are deployed as figures of menace and fear - the girl runs in fear from a dwarf for no other reason than he is a dwarf.   The exploitation of their status as disturbing anomalies is emphasised further in the sequence where the students visit the freak show and various of the 'freaks' are paraded before the cameras, for the replusion and titillation of both the show's audience and the cinema audience.  The film's treatment of these characters seems hugely insensitive, even for 1974, and feels as if it belongs in an earlier era.  Perhaps I'm being over sensitive from my twenty first century perspective - maybe there still were freak shows of this type touring the UK in the seventies.  Nevertheless, films which parade real 'freaks' for horror value, always make me feel uneasy.  Not only is it distasteful and exploitative, but it also suggests that the movie has no confidence in the horrific potential of its own plot and monsters.  Which is a pity as The Mutations is, otherwise, a reasonably entertaining B-horror movie.



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