Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema, Review #4
The Freakmaker (1974)
Directed by Jack Cardiff
By Amy M. Vaughn
The Freakmaker (also released as The Mutations) is a straight up mid-70s sci-fi horror about a mad scientist (Donald Pleasance) who wants to crossbreed humans with carnivorous plants. And that’s me, already sold. In standard horror movie fashion, there are college kids who look too old to be in college, and plenty of unnecessary boob shots. In not so standard fashion, there is an excess of time lapse photography, some of which is set to sultry jazz.
The laboratory set is fun. The giant bunny-eating plants are fun. The makeup and special effects are fun, too. The whole thing is just a schlocky good time. But where are the freaks? Especially for a movie said to have been inspired by Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), the central plotline so far is completely freak-free.
The connection is through a man named Lynch (Tom Baker), who owns a freakshow and who used to be billed as the Ugliest Man in the World. Lynch has decided he wants to be normal, and the mad scientist has promised to make that happen in exchange for subjects on which to experiment, subjects who just happen to be his students and the over-aged college kids we’ve already met.
And so, the two worlds collide. When the “college” kids go to the carnival, we get to see the whole act. Several members of the sideshow were big names in the business in the 70s, including Willie Ingram (Popeye), Esther Blackmon (Alligator Girl), Hugh Baily (Pretzel Boy), and Felix Duarte (Frog Boy). The troupe also had a bearded lady, a human pincushion, a human skeleton, and several little people.
This detour from the main plotline is as near an accurate example of a ten-in-one show as you’re likely to see in a movie. Run by a little person, the “freaks” come on stage one at a time, reveal their physical anomaly, and then tell their story. This last part, telling their story, was hugely important to the sideshows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It humanized the person on stage while filling the audience with an awareness of their own good fortune, the combination of which induced a feeling of magnanimity in their audience (aka the rubes). And that’s when the talker would traditionally offer the blow-off, an unadvertised act that could be seen for just a little more. The show in The Freakmaker did indeed have a blow-off, which made me appreciate it all the more.
Lynch, the Ugliest Man in the World, is rotten to the members of the sideshow family, even threatening his right-hand man with institutionalization, which was presumably possible at the time based solely on his unique biology. The movie recreates the feast scene from Freaks, even lifting whole lines, including “One of us.” But Lynch comes and ruins everything. All of this sets us up for the scene when the sideshow family takes him out, which happens to be at an opportune time for the main plot, too. While the murder was premeditated, it is meant to be seen as an act of self-preservation—Lynch was a threat to their freedom and their livelihood.
Is the movie trying to say that Lynch is evil because he cannot accept who or what he is? At one point he must have established this company with himself at the center as the Ugliest Man in the World. Why the change of heart? But the movie isn’t really about Lynch, so those questions go unanswered.
As much as I appreciate the humanity The Freakmaker brings to the sideshow performers, it isn’t really about any of them. Not the way Freaks is. Not the way Skins (2017) is. While the unusually bodied play a more substantial role than the cartoonishly large laboratory apparatus and the bleeding plants, they are background characters at best.
This is a movie about a mad scientist who wants to turn people into plants and plants into people. I would just hope that these days, nearly 50 years later, the conflation between lab-made freaks of nature and naturally occurring anomalous physical traits wouldn’t fly so easily. The Freakmaker is, however, an important time capsule in the empathic depiction of the differently bodied.
4 out of 5 Carnivorous Plants
Available on Prime.
Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, will be released this October 20th from Thicke & Vaney Books and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.