• The Freakmaker (Diabolik DVD/Vidcrest) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Diabolik DVD/Vidcrest
    Released on: February 10th, 2020.
    Director: Jack Cardiff
    Cast: Donald Pleasence, Tom Baker, Brad Harris, Julie Ege, Michael Dunn, Jill Haworth
    Year: 1974
    Purchase From Diabolik DVD

    The Freakmaker – Movie Review:

    In Jack Cardiff’s 1974 film The Freakmaker, the late, great Donald Pleasence (of Halloween fame, obviously) plays a scientist named Professor Nolter who is currently studying human mutations and meat eating plant life. He's an odd duck, to say the least, but he really puts his all into his work. Nolter hopes to someday make something out of his studies so that he can stop making a living as an English professor and dedicate himself to his beloved arcane science full time.

    What Nolter's university pals don't realize is that he has a full-fledged secret laboratory deep within his huge home. Here, with the help of his facially disfigured assistant Lynch (Tom Baker of Doctor Who fame!), he uses his laser and his secret serums of dubious origin to turn people into giant plant-human hybrids. In short, he makes freaks. Lynch also has a hand in running a circus sideshow, an endeavor he undertakes with some help from a dwarf friend of his named Burns (played by Michael Dunn).

    While on the surface Lynch and Nolter might seem to have an innocent enough relationship, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Nolter uses Lynch to acquire live human guinea pigs for him to test in his strange experiments. More often than not this results in some sort of genetic mutation, which in turn, Lynch is able to use in his carnival freakshow. It's a win-win situation for these two miscreants until they get sloppy in their work and start kidnapping Nolter's own students! You'd think Nolter would know not to smoke his own stash, so to speak, but no, the temptation is too great. To make matters worse, the freaks that Lynch holds captive in his sideshow are starting to get restless – they know what those two are up to and they're not happy about it at all…

    The cover art on the old Subversive Cinema DVD release stated that this is the "70s version of the cult classic, Freaks!" and that's not far off from the truth. Directed by Oscar winner Cardiff, the film borrows very heavily from Todd Browning's 1932 film and throws in some bits and pieces from a few other influential horror films that came before it as well, just for good measure. This gives Donald Pleasence plenty of room to go over the top and chew some scenery and it gives the relationship between he and Lynch some interesting room to grow but doesn't result in a particularly original story. The movie takes a little while to get going but once it does, we get to enjoy the presence of some great, if very unrealistic, make up effects and some awesome freakshow performances (the bug-a-boo eye guy is one of the coolest creatures to ever hit the carnival circuit). Oh, and there are plenty of interesting man eating plant type critters.

    The most interesting part of The Freakmaker (also widely known under the alternate title of The Mutations) is the very unusual look that the film has. The colors are all over the place in this film, with plenty of strange shades of red and green and yellow painting the film in an eerie light. On this level, the film is very successful as it has atmosphere to spare and plenty of creepy charm. The picture also makes use of some truly great sets (the laboratory and the sideshow itself are awesome). On top of that, the movie also features some truly awesome time lapse photography over the opening credits of the film!

    It's a fun movie with some interesting moments and a neat cast. Very definitely worth seeing if you're a fan of seventies horror films or of Donald Pleasance. If maybe not a masterpiece, it’s certainly a really fun ninety-minutes at the movies.

    The Freakmaker – Blu-ray Review:

    The Freakmaker comes to Blu-ray from Diabolik DVD and Vidcrest, framed at 1.66.1 widescreen taking up 21GBs of space on a 25GB disc. The AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation was taken from a new scan of Robert Weinbach’s own 35mm print and it looks decent. Obviously a restoration from the negative would have likely yielded better results but detail here is pretty good and the film’s quirky color scheme is reproduced nicely even if things do look a little faded. Some mild compression artifacts do creep into the picture in a couple of the darker scenes but there are no issues with any noticeable noise reduction or edge enhancement problems. There’s mild print damage noticeable during the opening credits but things clean up after that. There’s been a 'Copyright© 2017 Vidcrest, Inc. All Rights Reserved' bug added to the opening title card but no other alterations appear to have been made here.

    Overall, this is a pretty nice improvement over the previous DVD release – here’s a few comparison shots to demonstrate the difference in picture quality (images from the Blu-ray are up top, the DVD beneath them - and you can click to enlarge if that's your thing):

    The 24-bit DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track, in the film’s native English, sounds solid. Optional subtitles are provided in English. No problems to note here, the audio is pretty clean and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion. The score sounds quite good and the dialogue is always easy to follow.

    Carried over from the Subversion DVD is an audio commentary track with actor Brad Harris, co-writer Robert Weinbach and moderator Norm Hill. This is a lively track as Weinbach has got a very sharp memory and is full of all manner of anecdotes about the film and those involved in the production. He talks about the importance of the footage used in the opening credits, the score by Basil Kirchin (‘who was a far out character’), some of the inspiration for the freakshow scenes, where the idea for Baker’s character came from, what went into creating the sets, casting the picture, some of the themes that the movie explores, Cardiff’s involvement and lots more. Brad Harris has also got a lot of anecdotal information to share, noting that this might be the first time he’s seen the movie and talking about how this film gave him the opportunity to get away from being an action star and try something different. He share some interesting stories about working with Baker and Pleasence, how he very much enjoyed the company of Julie Ege, what it was like acting alongside the cast members who had real world physical issues and other related topics. Hill does a fine job of keeping them on track without keeping them under thumb, which results in a lot of good natured humor and a few genuinely funny moments.

    The disc also includes a half hour long documentary on the film entitled How To Make A Freak. This features interviews with Cardiff, Harris and Weinbach set to stills and clips from the film. Sure, there's a bit of replay between the commentary tracks and this featurette but there's also a lot of information in here that didn't make it into the commentaries which makes it a completely worthwhile watch and again, Cardiff comes across as one of the nicest guys in cinema and it's great to see that he hasn't tried to distance himself from his genre work despite his mainstream success. This featurette also originated on the Subversive DVD release.

    There’s also a twenty-nine-minute audio interview with Jack Cardiff, again conducted by Norman Hill, where he covers working on this film, using Ken Middleham’s time lapse footage, working with Donald Pleasence and Baker as well we as the sideshow freaks featured in the picture. He also covers his love of Hitchcock’s pictures and his relationship with the man, how he got interested in visuals as a nine year old after going to an art museum and how that led to an interest in photography and then film, why he directed the picture instead of working as a cinematographer on it, why he decided to make a horror picture, budgetary issues, some acting that he did in his early days and quite a bit more. This seems to be an edited down version of the commentary from the Subversive Cinema DVD (which had timing issues and other problems, so editing it down to this format actually makes sense).

    Rounding out the extras on the disc are a still gallery with isolated soundtrack, a trailer, a TV spot, menus and chapter selection. This release also comes packaged with a slipcover and inside the case you’ll find two double-sided postcards reproducing new and vintage poster art for the film – a nice touch.

    The Freakmaker – The Final Word:

    The Freakmaker is a fun seventies horror movie with a great cast and some very cool make up effects. Pleasence and Baker are a lot of fun here, the freakshow scenes are awesome and we get a killer plant monster too! The Blu-ray release offers a nice high definition upgrade for fans of the film. Recommended!

    Click on the images below for full sized The Freakmaker Blu-ray screen caps!