The late, great Donald Pleasance (of Halloween fame) plays a scientist named Professor Nolter who is currently studying human mutations and meat eating plant life. He's an odd duck, to say the least, but he really puts his all into his work. Nolter hopes to some day make something out of his studies so that he can stop making a living as an English professor and dedicate himself to his beloved arcance science full time.
What Nolter's university pals don't realize is that he has a full fledged secret laboratory deep within his huge home, where, with the help of his facially disfigured assistant Lynch (Tom Baker of Dr. Who fame!), he uses his laser and his secret serums of dubious origin to turn people into giant plant-human hybrids. In short, he makes freaks. Lynch also has a hand in running a circus sideshow, an endeavor he undertakes with some help from a dwarf friend of his named Burns (played by Michael Dunn).
While on the surface Lynch and Nolter might seem to have an innocent enough relationship, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Nolter uses Lynch to acquire live human guinea pigs for him to test his strange experiments on. More often than not this results in some sort of genetic mutation, which in turn, Lynch is able to use in his carnival freakshow. It's a win-win situation for these two miscreants until they get sloppy in their work and start kidnapping Nolter's own students! You'd think Nolter would know not to smoke his own stash, so to speah, but no, the temptation is too great. To make matters worse, the freaks that Lynch holds captive in his sideshow are starting to get restless – they know what the pair are up to and they're not happy about it at all…
The cover art on this DVD release states that this is the "70s version of the cult classic, Freaks!" and that's not far off from the truth. Directed by Oscar winner Jack Cardiff, this film borrows very heavily from Todd Browning's 1932 film and throws in some bits and pieces from a few other influential horror films that came before it as well, just for good measure. This gives Donald Pleasance plenty of room to go over the top and chew some scenery and it gives the relationship between he and Lynch some interesting room to grow but doesn't result in a particularly interesting or original story. This one just takes a little bit too long to get going for its own good despite the presence of some great, if very unrealistic, make up effects (the bug-a-boo eye guy is one of the coolest creatures to ever hit the carnival circuit) and plenty of interesting man eating plant type critters.
The most interesting part of The Freakmaker (also widely known under the alternate title of The Mutations) is the very unusual look that the film has. The colors are all over the place in this film, with plenty of strange shades of red and green and yellow painting the film in an eerie light. On this level, the film is very successful as it has atmosphere to spare and plenty of creepy charm and great sets (the laboratory and the sideshow itself are great).
While the cast and effects technicians all do a fine job, ultimately the film moves just a little too slow and borrows a little too heavily from other, better film to achieve cult classic status. It's a fun movie with a few interesting moments and it is very definitely worth seeing if you're a fan of seventies horror films or of Donald Pleasance, but is it a masterpiece? Nah. Not really, just a fun time killer.
The 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that Subversive have given to The Freakmaker is very impressive indeed. Aside from the odd bit of print damage showing up in the form of a speck here and there and a few scenes with some moderate grain, the image is in great shape and the colors come through very, very nicely. Black levels stay strong from start to finish and there are no problems with mpeg compression, though I did see a bit of line shimmering in a few spots. Flesh tones look good and there's a pretty solid level of both foreground and background detail present in the image. Nicely done.
The original English language mono mix is preserved on this release and added is a new Dolby Digital English language 2.0 stereo track that opens up the mix ever so slightly. There's not a whole lot of difference between the tracks and you should find yourself pleased with whichever option you chose. Dialogue is crisp and clean, the score comes through nicely and is never overpowering and aside from a little bit of flatness in a couple of scenes, everything sounds fine.
Director Jack Cardiff provides a brief video introduction to the feature, and monkeying around on the menu will also prove that he was on hand for a commentary track as well. Due to some technical issues that occurred during the recording process there is a bit of a delay at times on the track (as much as five minutes in some spots) but when the track moves along, there's a lot of great information contained herein. Cardiff waxes nostalgic about The Freakmaker and his film career in general, as well as about working with Donald Pleasance and Tom Baker. Cardiff comes off as a real class act, and his thoughts on his career are quite interesting – fans should dig this track even if there are some glitches.
A second commentary track is also included, this time with the participation of actor Brad Harris, co-writer Robert Weinbach, and moderator Norm Hill. This is a little bit more lively than the first mix as Weinbach has got a very sharp memory and is full of all manner of anecdotes about the film and those involved in the production. Brad Harris has also got a lot of anecdotal information to share and Hill does a fine job of keeping them on track without keeping them under thumb, which results in a lot of good natured humor and a few genuinely funny moments here.
If two commentary tracks weren't enough, there's also a brand new half hour long documentary on the film featuring new interviews with Cardiff, Harris and Weinbach set to stills and clips from the film. Sure, there's a bit of replay between the commentary tracks and this featurette but there's also a lot of information in here that didn't make it into the commentaries which makes it a completely worthwhile watch and again, Cardiff comes across as one of the nicest guys in cinema and it's great to see that he hasn't tried to distance himself from his genre work despite his mainstream success.
Rounding out the extra features on the DVD are an alternate credits sequence (hidden as a fairly easy to find Easter Egg), a still gallery, text biographies for most of the key players, and trailers for the feature and a few other Subversive Cinema titles.
Also included inside the keepcase is a replica of the film's original theatrical poster and a couple of lobby card reproductions.
Even if it's hardly a classic, The Freakmaker is a fun seventies horror movie with a great cast and some very cool make up effects. Subversive's DVD sports an excellent transfer and plenty of extras that should make fans of the film very, very happy. This one easily comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.