Color, 1974, 92 mins. 18 secs.
Directed by Jack Cardiff
Starring Donald Pleasence, Tom Baker, Brad Harris, Julie Ege, Michael Dunn, Scott Antony, Jill Haworth
Diabolik / Vidcrest (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Subversive Cinema (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.75:1) (16:9), Rimini (Blu-ray & DVD) (France RB/R2 HD/PAL)

As The Freakmakerwith fellow countryman The FreakmakerFreddie Francis, Jack Cardiff enjoys a renowned reputation as a cinematographer with a roster of classic films under his belt (in his case including The African Queen, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes) that tends to overshadow a truly eccentric body of work as a director. In Cardiff's case, he dabbled on and off in directing with everything from low budget crime thrillers to the lush D.H. Lawrence adaptation Sons and Lovers and the excellent, violent actioner Dark of the Sun. However, nothing in that body of work can prepare you for his final film as a director: The Freakmaker, a monster jam also known as The Mutations. Very colorful, morbid, and weird to the core, it also belongs to that small subset of horror films utilizing actors with actual physical abnormalities a la Freaks and The Sentinel.

At a prestigious London university, Professor Nolter (Pleasence) is experimenting with groundbreaking new methods of improving humanity by crossing homo sapiens with plant life. Among the grotesqueries hidden in his lab are a giant bloodthirsty plant that scarfs down helpless bunnies, and the good doctor has a fresh supply of DNA material thanks to female coeds on hand who make for good guinea pigs. Meanwhile the botched results of his work end up in a sideshow run by a disfigured Tom Baker just before his big break on Doctor Who. Of course it's just a matter of time before he takes a step too far, namely when he sets his sights on beautiful young Heidi (The Legend of the The Freakmaker7 The FreakmakerGolden Vampires' Ege).

Despite the inherent trashiness of the subject matter, Cardiff really throws everything he has at this one with a striking, colorful aesthetic worthy of a pulp novel cover. It also has a dreamy quality at times, most notably in the striking reel of psychedelic plant footage that recalls the same year's Phase IV. On the other hand you get a lot of cheap thrills here, too, including the obligatory mid-'70s nude scenes with Ege, Pleasence chewing up scenery and doing crazy experiments involving blood and plants, and even Kommissar X himself, Brad Harris, turning up as one of the good guys.

Originally distributed by none other than Columbia Pictures, The Freakmaker first hit VHS in 1984 from Vidcrest (who also handled the two Mondo Cane films) and then made the leap to DVD in 2005 from Subversive Cinema. Framed at 1.75:1, that transfer looked clean and certainly watchable but suffered from that heavy orange cast that plagued many of the label's transfers and made the actors look radioactive. The DVD presents the film with the original mono mix and a reverb-added stereo option you can skip, as well as a very sparse audio commentary with Cardiff conversing with Subversive's Norm Hill. There's some good info here (especially about the opening montage), but it has a lot of long, long gaps and collectively runs less than a third of the feature in total. A second commentary with writer-producer Robert Weinbach and Harris is much more robust and covers the production in an admirable level of detail. You also get a brief 11s Cardiff video intro, a "How To Make a Freak" featurette (26m4s) with all three commentary participants, cast and crew bios, a gallery of lobby cards (53s), and trailers for this film, The Candy Snatchers, Blue Murder, Battlefield Baseball, Metalskin, The Freakmakerand The Gardener. A The Freakmakerlater DVD from the dodgy Desert Island Films later came out in 2012 and is best avoided altogether.

In 2020, The Freakmaker made its U.S. Blu-ray bow as the initial release from the gang at Diabolik as a limited edition also bearing the revived Vidcrest name. (Barely preceding it was a French release that, according to reader A.L. Mariaux, is completely open matte with plenty of visible gaffes on screen.) The blown-out orange look of the DVD is replaced here with a cooler, more consistent presentation framed at 1.66:1 (adding a bit of vertical info and losing a smidgen on the sides); detail is greatly improved throughout, and it makes for the most satisfying presentation of the film so far on home video. The DTS-HD MA English mono track sounds good for what the original mix can provide, and optional English SDH subtitles are provided. A very slightly reworked version of "How To Make a Freak" (basically the opening text is cleaned up and shortened) is included and runs 25m54s, while the Weinbach/Harris commentary (or "commentarty," as the menu amusingly spells it) is also ported over. On the other hand, the Cardiff track is wisely consolidated down to a 28m33s audio interview instead that plays a lot more smoothly. Finally the disc closes out with a still gallery (featuring isolated score tracks), the theatrical trailer, and a TV spot. The limited edition also comes with two double-sided postcards featuring new and vintage poster art, a slipcover featuring artwork by Mike Tommyrot.

VIDCREST (Blu-ray)

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Flesh-Eating MothersFlesh-Eating Mothers Flesh-Eating Mothers Flesh-Eating Mothers Flesh-Eating Mothers


Reviewed on February 8, 2020.