Freakmaker, The (DVD)

Starring Brad Harris, Tom Baker, Donald Pleasence, Julie Ege

Directed by Jack Cardiff

Released by Subversive Cinema

Freaks. For years, filmmakers have chosen actual physical anomalies, people with deformities or odd skin conditions, to terrify the rest of us “normal” looking people. The reasoning is apparent: They can serve as a physical representation of all of our fears of societal exclusion, but usually these “freaks” are more mellow and down-to-earth than most of the people I work with.

That’s why I’m glad Cardiff and his producers took the high road with The Freakmaker and showed the freaks within as normal people born into extraordinary circumstances. The titular madman, Professor Nolter (Pleasance, playing the mad scientist role just a bit too subdued), is more interested in creating the next jump in human evolution, giving nature a kick in the ass so to speak, than with torturing bearded midgets or anything like that. That was a fear I had going in, that it was just an updated, exploitation-heavy remake of Tod Brownings’ Freaks, but that fear was put to rest pretty quickly. Instead, Nolter believes that our next leap forward will be to become more like the plants, living in harmony with the Earth.

Good intensions notwithstanding, Nolter is a nutjob. After creating a few animal/plant hybrids, namely a Venus flytrap with a taste for large bunnies, he decides he needs to start testing it on humans. Unfortunately for a few of Professor Nolter’s students, he’s not gotten that whole photosynthesis thing worked out yet, so his “creations” still have the base desire to eat meat. And lots of it.

His first human experiment goes very badly, the end result looking like an anorexic Greedo, but he’s just crazy enough to keep going. He sends out Lynch (Baker) to use his brute strength and hideous facial deformity to bring him fresh young victims, but since he’s dipping into the same pool of friends, eventually they become suspicious.

The film as a whole really is something remarkable. It utilizes time lapse photography to show Nolter’s plants growing far faster than they should, the production designer created some pretty nasty looking plant/animal/human hybrids, and the fashion and color scheme scream of an era we can (hopefully) never duplicate. People keep talking about bringing back the grittiness of the 70’s, but I want to see more 70’s horror films like this one, what with its jaunty, sometimes ear-splitting musical score and all those…damn…colors!

And of course, Subversive’s cleanup job with the disc really helped to make it work so well for me.

The new anamorphic transfer looks great, not that I had seen (or heard of) the movie before this disc was put out; but seeing the quality of it, I can only imagine what how it used to look back under its original title, The Mutations. The sound has both stereo and the original mono mixes, both of which work fine. I’m actually glad they didn’t attempt a 5.1 mix; that score alone would’ve probably led me to kill. It gets loud at times, folks.

The most prominent extra is the 25-minute documentary “How to Make a Freak,” which features interviews with director Jack Cardiff (in his 90’s and still sharp as a tack), producer and writer Robert Weinbach, and co-star/associate producer Brad Harris. The information contained within is great, which is good because to watch the feature is actually pretty boring from a visual standpoint. The interviewees are static with the same background behind them the entire time. Weinbach in particular is a bit scary in that his eyes never move and his posture almost never changes no matter what he’s talking about. It would have benefited slightly from having some movie or behind-the-scenes footage thrown in to mix it up, but like I said, the info is cool, and that’s really what’s important.

The film has two commentary tracks: One is with DVD producer Norm Hill moderating with Weinbach and Harris, and the other is…well, the other one is strange. Apparently Dust Devil director Richard Stanley interviewed Jack Cardiff for this track, but Stanley’s voice had to be removed due to technical reasons. In his place is Hill, asking the questions that were answered by Cardiff when Stanley asked them. Like I said, it’s a bit odd but worth a listen because Cardiff’s recollection is great, though you should be warned that it’s far more sporadic than the other track. For behind-the-scenes entertainment value, the track with Hill, Harris, and Weinbach if far more on the money, and there’s hardly ever a break in their conversation. Lots of good anecdotes, especially from Harris who, previous to taking his role in Freakmaker, was a huge star in Germany from some action movies he helped make.

Rounding out the disc are some trailers for Freakmaker as well as other Subversive titles like The Candy Snatchers and Metal Skin and a gallery of lobby cards, the music over which skips every time a new card dissolves onto screen. Just thought you should be warned, but it’s only 5 minutes long so I doubt it’ll annoy you.

Finally, there is the packaging, which is great. The DVD case itself is clear, so the inside is lined with production and behind-the-scenes stills, and it comes with a mini poster and a set of four lobby card reproductions. Why can’t all DVD producers give the inside of the DVD as much attention as the disc itself like Subversive does? Good stuff.

All in all, a solid DVD release for a very offbeat, one of a kind horror/sci fi film from a bygone era. I really don’t see a movie like this being made again any time soon, so I’m glad Subversive was able to bring it out of obscurity and give it its due respect.

3 ½ out of 5

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Johnny Butane

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