Of all the conscious homages to Tod Browning's classic Freaks (1932), the best is likely Freakmaker; aka, The Mutations (1974).
The screenwriter had had Freaks in mind throughout the writing, but the director had never seen Tod Browning's original, so visually it's in no way imitative, being its own film even though the primary influence is obvious from the text.
Simultaneously, this film imitates & celebrates the look of vintage Technicolor, with unnaturally rich reds & yellows, very beautiful for the circus setting. Only the insane laboratory of Dr. Nolter (Donald Pleasance) & scenes at the carnival are garish, causing the story seems to weave in & out of reality.
The first half hour is set at the professorial doctor's university. This is sometimes plodding as it is too slowly reveals that he's a madman trying to create plant/animal hybrids.
He has in his house a collection of wacky plants, including a rabbit-eating flytrap. This has a certain hoky fun intrigue to it, but the film doesn't really come alive until it gets to the carnival.
The little people (non-professional actors Tony Main, Kathy Kitachen, & Molly Tweedlie) lend immediate awe & authenticity to the carnival setting
They're headed up by the great character actor Michael Dunn best remembered as Dr. Loveless the recurring villain from The Wild Wild West (1965-1968).
Freakmaker was one of Michael's last two performances before his early death from side-effects of his form of dwarfism. The film was released shortly after he died in England.
Dr. Nolter's victimized experiments tend to be sickly, shortlived, & unable to communicate. The professional freaks really don't like them., although the freakshow in this carnival is where the professor fobs off his human-plant mutation experiments.
Brigitte (Olga Anthony), the college student the professor experimented on, ends up displayed as the Lizard Woman of Tibet.
Tony (Scott Antony) is kidnapped for the next experiment. After his wicked transformation, he escapes the lab & goes to his girlfriend's apartment.
He's monstrously deformed in the face, with artichokes for hands, so not apt to be recognized by his girl. His ribs unfold like a Venus flytrap, & you don't want to be embraced by those ribs.
The "regular" human oddities are a family when not performing. We get to know various freak & carny players, some real, some faked.
Among their numbers we get Lynch (Tom Baker) the man with the horrible head, the Hercules figure Brian (sword & sandal actor Brad Harris, who was one of the producers for the film), & fire-eater Bob Bura.
Then there's circus fat lady Fran Fullenwider (can it be that Full & Wider was her real name??), Diane the bearded lady (Fay Bura), & Popeye (Willie Ingram) who really has popping eyes & for me the freakiest of the authentic "freaks."
Additionally there's Esther Blackman the Alligator Woman with leathery cracked skin, a Cuban guy billed as Malanito the Frogboy (Felix Duarte) due to his calcium-deficient rubbery legs, & Hugh Baily the pretzel boy with wildly bent bones.
And there's Mary Louise (Madge Garnett) the monkey woman, Mr. Podges the human pincushion, & Leslie Roose the Human Skeleton obviously on her last legs from an eating disorder.
For Lynch, who most hates being a freak, they do the "we accept you! one of us!" chant which is the most direct borrowing from Tod Browning's film.
As he doesn't want to be one of them, the famously bizarre song of acceptance sets him to rampaging through their banquet.
Another sequence patterned after Freaks has the family of anomalies gathering to threaten & eventually destroy Lynch the freak-hating freak.
I first saw this film at the Midway Drive-in Theater in Midway, Washington, when it was brand new. It really made an impression -- especially Popeye & the bulemia girl.
It was decades before I got to see it again, & in the interim it had become, in my fading memory, a really great film. Having finally been able to see it anew, I'm glad to find that it really was a rather special & cool film, & if not the equal of Freaks -- because what is -- nevertheless a fine little horror flick.
By contrast one of the worst Freaks-inspired films, the amateurish cinematography of She Freak (1967) right away informs the viewer this might not be much of a film. The retro beach party soundtrack, as the camera takes us on a tour of a typical American carnival, suggests the intense cheeziness may well be intentional, though who's to say.
If you weren't already put off by the exploitation title, & then made it past the terrible cinematography, then hey, you've entered the right film for you. It's going to deliver pretty much what you should've been expecting, a movie so awful it's fun.
An old lady called Madame Lee with a lot of make-up stands on a stage & kisses a smallish boa constrictor, an "act" a lot of eight year old kids have done at the pet shop, these little boas being so harmless. Madame Lee is her actual stage name & this is an actual act, unbelievably enough, from the last of the burlesque houses.
Then there's guy in his gardening clothes does swordswallowing act but swallows only a dagger, as he wouldn't want to risk anything with an actual sword.
We're promised something much more interesting that used to be human dwells in "the pit." Before we see it (or her) a flashback begins & we see Jade (Claire Brennen), the white trash truckstop waitress. I just adored her aggressively bad performance as a rightly dissatisfied bitch who wishes were at least a little bit more than a nobody.
Carnival Time Shows arrives in her dirtwater town. It's run by Al Babcock (Van Teen). Jade wants to join up just to escape this hell hole of a town.
In the carnival she's befriended by couchie dancer Moon (Lynn Courtney). The carny life might've been a lot of fun, but that Jade takes such a dislike to the sideshow freaks, which is kind of like a racist parading around Harlem griping about who she encounters.
Blackie (Lee Raymond), a ride operator, is low on the carny totem pole, but a hunk, so Jade would like to do him. But Steve St. John (Bill McKinney) who runs the freakshow is said to have money, so Jade focuses her bee-atched femme fatalisms on him as her Mr. Moneybags.
With a lot of silent padding, the film bogs down through the middle, looking like the world's most ill-conceived documentary about the thrills of setting up & knocking down rides & tents.
The obvious plot elements of Jade going for Steve's money & Blackie's body is put on hold & develops way too slowly. And for the longest while there's not a hint of strangeness or horror anywhere in the film, & seemingly no actual freaks in the freak show even.
When Steve's dead & Blackie's arrested, & Jade widowed almost as soon as she was married, she just stops being nice to anyone, having everything she wanted. However, since what she's gained is ownership of the freakshow, seems she should've kept pretending she didn't hate freaks if her intent was to milk it for all it's worth.
She immediately fires the midget wittily named Shorty (Felix Silla, who played the Emperor Penguin in Batman Returns, 1999; was Lucifer in a season ofBattlestar Galactica, 1978-79; & was inside all that hair as Cousin Itt on The Addams Family, 1956-66).
Jade even begins to be mean to Moon who as a poor judge of character had been a good friend to Jade. So though it wasn't much presaged & its very badly developed, the freaks come for her & turn her into a freak at the end, we're given not the slightest clue how.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl