The Mutations

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Jack Cardiff, the legendary cinematographer turned director, helmed the sleazy science fiction film The Mutations (1974) which attempts to combine Tod Browning’s classic film Freaks (1932) with the mad scientist narrative. The Mutations is more interesting than successful, although it does boast an excellent performance from Tom Baker (my favorite Doctor of the Doctor Who franchise). Less a cult classic and more of a run of the mill midnight movie, The Mutations is a film for completists.

The plot revolves around a Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence) who has hired the disfigured manager of an itinerant freak show (Baker) to abduct young women for his experiments. Nolter is attempting to mutate his female students by splicing their genes with those of plants to create the next step in human evolution. Conveniently, when these experiments fail, Nolter simply deposits the transformed young women in the freak show.

The Mutations is conceptually classic Gothic storytelling and Cardiff embraces this fact with various allusions not only to the films of Tod Browning but also Val Lewton and Terence Fisher. As in Frankenstein, the knowledge that comes with scientific study and understanding flies in the face of traditional theological moral constructs that inevitably corrupt the scientist. The Mutations isn’t very nuanced in terms of its writing so these themes are most affectively conveyed by Cardiff’s carefully composed images. To this end, Cardiff draws upon the iconography of horror.

However, The Mutations is so cheaply made that Cardiff’s film is utterly devoid of the usual atmospheric trappings associated with the Gothic sensibility. The rubber plant monsters, though uniquely designed, reveal all of their aesthetic limitations in the brightly lit sets. The end result is that The Mutations looks more like a reprint of an EC Comic than an early Edgar G. Ulmer picture. The scenes at the fairground look better because they are exteriors that don’t require the harsh lights of an interior set. The problem there is that the subplot which inverts Freaks retains a dramatic urgency that the main plot cannot match.

As is the case with so many of Cardiff’s directorial efforts The Mutations is more suggestive of interesting concepts and cinematographic techniques than it is at realizing them. The Mutations is a sad ending to Cardiff’s directing career, especially since the most unique aspect of the film on a technical level were the time-lapse shots of plants (these were new and revolutionary at the time). As suggested above, The Mutations is a sort of fascinating failure.