The Freakmaker LE Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: February 10, 2020
Audio: English 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 92 minutes
Director: Jack Cardiff
Not satisfied with the pace of natural selection in driving evolution, a deranged biologist decides to create his own genetically engineered Mutations! With the promise of using his experiments to “cure” them, Dr. Nolter (Donald Pleasence) enlists members of the local freakshow to help him kidnap students from a nearby college to use as human guinea pigs! Using the same techniques that he developed mixing the DNA of plants and animals, he begins crossbreeding plants and humans with unpredictable results. One by one, his failed experiments are cast off to the circus until the freaks have had enough and seek their bloody revenge. (From Diabolik/Vidcrest’s official synopsis)
The late Jack Cardiff spent much of his movie career as one of the UK’s most groundbreaking cinematographers. This included the pristine Technicolor photography for Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (for which he won a Best Cinematography Oscar, 1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949), and John Huston’s The African Queen (1951). As a director, he earned respect with thrillers, like Beyond This Place (aka: Web of Evidence, 1959), broke boundaries with The Girl on a Motorcycle (the first movie rated X in America, 1968), and earned a Best Director Oscar nomination for Sons and Lovers (1960). But, like so many prestige filmmakers of his generation, Cardiff’s directing career ended on the B-movie end of the spectrum with 1974’s The Freakmaker, aka: The Mutations. The roots of this mix of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau (originally published in 1896) can probably be found in Dark of the Sun (aka: The Mercenaries, 1968), an A-budget Dirty Dozen (E.M. Nathanson’s book, 1965; Robert Aldrich’s film, 1967) pastiche that gained notoriety for its brutal, exploitative violence. Cardiff had also made the first-ever Smell-O-Vision picture with Scent of Mystery (1960), so hullabaloo was not outside of his purview. Still, a full-bore, creature-feature horror film was not something he had done before.
As mentioned the script by producer Robert D Weinbach and Edward Mann is an updated version of Freaks, punched up with elements borrowed from The Island of Doctor Moreau. As such, it isn’t enormously impressive on a conceptual level, but the familiar basis and lack of major plotting offers a solid backdrop for Cardiff to play around visually. The colorful, comic book-like photography and production design is reminiscent of Amicus Productions’ portmanteau movies, especially Freddie Francis’ omnibi, Torture Garden (1967), Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1965), and Tales from the Crypt (1972). The focus on murderous flora, in particular, draws comparisons to the Creeping Vine episode of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. The strange plant monster effects/sculptures and heavy emphasis on explaining the evolutionary pseudo-science connects the film to Showa era Japanese kaiju movies. Then, there are the pauses to explore the lives of Dr. Nolter’s (Donald Pleasence at his most understated) students, who he is exploiting for his experiments with the help of Tom Baker (who made his Dr. Who debut the same year as The Freakmaker) buried under Joseph/John Merrick makeup. These resemble any number of Z-grade creature features and pre-slasher coed bodycount movies. But The Freakmaker doesn’t really match the tonal or even structural expectations of any of them. It’s a more noctambulist and melancholic movie than one might expect from a freakshow exploitation picture.
Some of the strangeness might be the result of a rough production, rather than genuine cleverness on the filmmakers’ part. For example, the freakshow sequences feel like some kind of contractual obligation – as if the production had already secured the time to work with the (mostly) real-world human oddities and simply tacked them onto the mutant plant monster movie they already had in production (according Weinbach this isn’t the case, but I’m not sure I believe his script elements were really this detached, originally). Yet I can’t imagine the film without them, because they provide an otherwise trashy movie with its morally gloomy center. Cardiff’s inability to imbue the “normal” human characters with any personality is moot, because the freaks are so effortlessly likable. Intended or not, this makes it easier to sympathize with the plant monsters, despite the brief screen time and budget-friendly special effects. That said, the rubbery monsters and oversized plants are extremely charming and honestly might have made the whole movie worth seeing, even if it wasn’t dramatically and tonally so interesting.
Cardiff returned to cinematography gigs following The Freakmaker and did eventually shoot some horror films himself, including Mike Newell’s The Awakening (1980), John Irvin’s Ghost Story (1981), Lewis Teague’s Cat’s Eye (1985) – all films notable for their gorgeous photography and...not much else.
The only two digital releases of The Freakmaker that I know of are Subversive Cinema’s 2005 NTSC disc (re-released in 2008 as part of the Greenhouse Gore box set), a 2012 budget label disc from Desert Island Films, and an R2 PAL disc from Maritim Pictures in Germany. Both were anamorphically enhanced, but were misframed at 1.85:1 and 1.78:1. A 1.78:1 SD version is available for sale from various streaming services (I believe through Desert Island), so the film hasn’t been completely lost in the US once that Subversive disc went out of print, but fans still deserved a solid HD version. This Blu-ray debut, from Vidcrest and Diabolik DVD (the same folks that run the cult DVD/BD/4K UHD sales site) was created using Vidcrest founder (and co-writer/producer) Robert D Weinbach’s own archival 35mm print. The results are a healthy and very film-like 1080p transfer, framed at Cardiff and cinematographer Paul Beeson’s preferred 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The print source limits detail and sharpness a bit and, of course, leads to some print damage, but there aren’t major issues with other common print-based transfers, such as overly crushed dark spots, smudgy film grain, or unbalanced colors (everything is just a bit on the rosey side, as seen in skin tones and neutral hues). Cardiff and cinematographer Paul Beeson’s vivid hues pop against the blacks, highlights are punchy without blooming, and, while details and edges maybe could’ve been tighter, had they been working from a negative source, the elemental separation is impressive. Print damage artifacts are largely limited to splice marks and a scratch every once in a while.
The original mono soundtrack is presented in 2.0 uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. The tracks have obviously seen (heard?) better days and there are issues with muffling and compression of dynamic range. Fortunately, there aren’t examples of major distortion, fuzz, or aural stretching/squeezing. Basil Kirchin and Jack Nathan’s soundtrack (Nathan is credited as “in association with”) is a sort of eerie and downbeat free jazz thing with occasional experimental interludes. Sometimes, the throbbing electronic bass effects – an example of the sci-fi sound effects being essentially inseparable from the music (sounds made by autistic children, apparently?!?) – warble and overwhelm the other sound, but the problem is always short lived.
Commentary with producer/writer Robert D. Weinbach and actor Brad Harris – I assume this is the same track that was last heard on the Subversive Cinema disc. It is hosted by interviewer Norman Hill, who also pops in on occasion with screen-specific information. There’s little downtime between anecdotes and factoids.
How to Make a Freak (26:04, SD) – A 2005 featurette from the Subversive Cinema disc including Interviews with Weinbach, Harris, and Cardiff, who discuss their careers, the cast & crew, the budget, and making the film.
Audio Interview with Jack Cardiff (28:33, HD stills) – This rather lengthy track was also conducted by Norman Hill and I believe (but am not positive) that it was used as secondary commentary on the Subversive Cinema disc.
Trailer and TV spot
Still Gallery set to selections of isolated score
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