Prime in the Dustbin: ‘The Freakmaker’ (1974)

Hey, kids, how do you feel about watching rain fall in slow motion? Do you gauge your enjoyment of a movie by how often you get to see cells under a microscope? Is sitting cross-legged on a hard wooden floor and watching plants grow your idea of a good time? If you have listed one or all of these things as turn-ons on your computer dating profile, then you’re going to love The Freakmaker, aka The Mutations, in which a crazed botanist starts mucking about with recombinant DNA. Who is this guy to play God? Well, the kooky plant doctor is played by Donald Pleasance, and if anybody is going to get Mother Nature to hike up her leafy skirts, it’s him. Who can resist the rugged, wily charms of Donald Pleasance?

Dr. Nolter (Pleasance) teaches botany at a British college. But he harbors a dark secret. That was on Pleasance’s computer dating profile. “I enjoy mojitos, the occasional butternut squash, and harboring dark secrets.” Nolter has a thing for carnivorous plants. He admires their purity. Listening to him talk about how Venus fly traps capture and consume insects is strangely soothing, like a urinalysis training film with a constant ASMR background track.

Nolter believes that evolution makes its greatest and fastest leaps ahead through sudden mutation, new species appearing practically overnight. In order to speed up that process, Nolter has begun working on a plant/human hybrid. It would end world hunger, as this plant-man would be able to photosynthesize. Maybe it’s not the classic view of Utopia, but it works for Nolter. He’s already created trees that bleed and a humongous carnivorous plants that eats long-eared rabbits.

Helping with his experiments is Mr. Lynch (Tom Baker), the co-owner of the local carnival which houses a freakshow. Lynch appears to be approximately seven feet tall, with tumors growing like phlox all over his elongated jawline and brow. The other freaks, mostly little people, can’t stand the guy. He acts out aggressively and uses hostile language. At one point, he hurls a little person off his front stoop, tossing them a good three feet. Lynch is the perfect Igor to Nolter’s Fuchsiastein.

In return for Nolter attempting to find a cure for his bumpy face, Lynch kidnaps human subjects for Nolter’s experiments. Why he keeps abducting Nolter’s own students is never explained, but it happens four times in the movie. They’re all in the same group of friends, too! It’s like having the owner of Central Perk abscond with Phoebe, Rachel, Joey and Chandler in exchange for Monica’s promise to stop pretending she’s as young as the rest of the gang.

Suffice to say the experiments are unsuccessful. The first kidnapped student, a gorgeous redhead, ends up as such a disaster that Lynch takes her to the join the freakshow as the Amazing Lizard Girl. Her friends are concerned. “Oh, she’s been missing for a week now! Isn’t that inconvenient?” And yet, nobody calls the police, because hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way. It’s dumb and ineffective, but that’s what they do. Nothing. They do nothing.

There’s all kinds of unintentional hilarity going on The Freakmaker. Nolter invents a cyclotron that can reverse decay. Through the magic of time-lapse photography, we see an orange rot into a black ball of mold. Nolter’s cyclotron, a big Goldfinger looking ray gun that doesn’t really emit a ray so it’s just a bulky flashlight, turns the fruit back into a beautiful succulent sphere of Florida gold. This effect is accomplished by showing us the same time-lapse footage of the orange getting squishy and gross, but in reverse. Shouldn’t reverse time-lapse photography break the time-space continuum, opening a portal to hell and causing the Event Horizon to orbit over Elon Musk’s house?

Much like Tod Browning’s Freaks, this movie also features people with deformities or different bodies in supporting roles. There are at least five little people, a bearded lady, and someone known as the Pretzel Man, who claims to have been born with no calcium in their lower extremities. Most bothersome is the Living Skeleton, a skinny young woman obviously suffering from anorexia. It may not have exploitative in 1974, but.. oh, wait. It was totally exploitative in 1974, even if eating disorders weren’t grabbing the sort of headlines they do these days.

The plants in Nolter’s lab are things of ridiculous glory, gigantic mixtures of Audrey II and the spore-shooting flowers in the “Spock’s Brain” episode of Star Trek. They breathe, burp, and scream when they’re injured. Okay, they look like the inflatable punch-balls you buy your kids at the dollar store so they’ll be quiet while you’re looking at spatulas.

The most compelling thing about The Freakmaker is the dream pairing of Fanboy Nation’s two favorite doctors: Loomis and Who. Tom Baker is unrecognizable under his latex protrusions and without his trademark scarf, but he manages to steal the show with his lumbering and muffled threats. Pleasance is pretty great, but when isn’t he? He uses his menacingly posh lower register voice throughout the whole movie. Imagine what could have happened if he had made more than five good movies throughout his career!

The Freakmaker takes itself seriously, which elevates it from funny to hilarious. Your enjoyment of the film will depend heavily on your tolerance for time-lapse photography, rubber plants, and young girls with eating disorders paraded in front of snarky college students for their amusement.

What do you say, film lovers? Ready to get your Freakmaker on? It’s lurking in the low-rent circus known as Prime Video, ready to put down roots in your eye-brains.

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