A deranged genetic scientist abducts college students as human guinea pigs that he uses in his experiments in crossbreeding plants with humans. The failed experimental mutants are then given to a cruel circus freakshow owner who exploits them to the fullest. However, the mutants and the circus freaks will not be denied justice.
The Mutations was the result of collaboration between two American writers – Santos Alcocer (writing under the pseudonym ‘Edward Mann’) and Robert D. Weinbach. The two had begun their horror film partnership in 1968, with the Mexican quickie Cauldron of Blood – one of the very last films in which Boris Karloff appeared before his death. Alcocer had written and directed the film, while Weinbach had produced it. Flushed with their success, they mixed together a heady cinematic brew of scenes and ideas primarily from Tod Browning’s disturbing masterpiece Freaks. Their story treatment was sold to Columbia in the early seventies, and it was decided to film the story in England, to keep costs down.
In a surprising move, indicative of Columbia’s emphasis on the prospect of the film as trash masquerading as something more important, acclaimed cinematographer Jack Cardiff was enlisted to direct the film. Born in Yarmouth on the 18th of September 1914, Cardiff entered the industry as a runner in the early thirties. His debut as a cinematographer was The Last Days of Pompeii, but his work ultimately went uncredited. Over the next 35 years, he acted as cinematographer on such distinguished productions as Caesar & Cleopatra, Black Narcissus and The African Queen, before winning wide critical praise for his directorial job on the French Marrianne Faithful movie Girl on a Motorcycle in 1968.
The cast was assembled throughout the autumn of 1972, with a November starts date penciled in. Donald Pleasence headed the bill as Dr. Nolte, the unscrupulous geneticist stocking a freak show with his mistakes. After his success as Rasputin in Nicholas & Alexandera, Tom Baker warranted second billing, a full two years before his stint as the longest-running of television’s Dr. Whos. Square-jawed beefcake Brad Harris – a mainstay of dire under budgeted continental films in the sixties was cast not for his dubious talents, but because he invested in the project, ultimately warranting Associate Producer billing. By far the most attractive member of the cast was Norwegian bombshell Julie Ege, who had proved time and again that she was one of the few continental actresses both sexy and talented enough to handle demanding roles – sadly, The Mutations failed to provide her talents with a suitable vehicle.
Principal photography commenced on location (and on schedule) on the 13th of November, 1972. Throughout production, the film was known under the more singular title ‘The Mutation’, but it was pluralized during post-production. The Mutations was filmed exclusively in England in Oakley Court, Windsor in Berkshire; Battersea Park, London; and in Pinewood Studios. The Mutations wrapped in mid-December, and with the protracted special effects photography, post production extended well into the spring of 1973.
According to Tom Baker, Willie Ingram, who went by the stage name “Popeye” because of his uncanny ability to dislocate his eyes from their sockets, used to frequent a bar across the street between shooting scenes. During one such outing one of the waitresses made it clear through her attitude that she didn’t approve of Baker, who is white, being friends with Ingram who is black. To get back at her, Ingram would pop his eyes from their sockets when she passed their table, frightening her and when she tried to point it out to other waitresses and patrons he would then relocate his eyes back in their sockets and then he and Baker would pretend nothing happened. According to the film’s producer and co-writer Robert D. Weinbach, the role for Professor Nolter was originally intended for famed horror actor Vincent Price, however due to difficulties with Price’s agent the idea was abandoned.
The Mutations  is a film that you have described to me as the biggest mistake of your directing life.
Jack Cardiff: Oh yes! I had almost forgotten that one. I think I had forgotten it because one doesn’t like to remember! The big mistake I made was this grotesque make-up. This poor actor had to have his face distorted and they had done all these drawings, and I chose one for them to make up. But the problem was that once it was on, it couldn’t really be removed. I was stuck with this bloody make-up that took an age to put on. It should have been made out of some medium that allowed it to be taken on and off more easily. Funnily enough, again abroad, this was quite popular; I always cringe when people say they like it.
Julie Ege recalled her work on the film: “As time went by, it became increasingly difficult to read the film scripts that were offered to me. The Mutations starring Donald Pleasence certainly had an obscure plot. Donald asked me what a nice girl from Norway was doing in this business. We had a good time; Michael Dunn, the short actor, became a good friend. I have the fondest memories of him. All the side-show artists were very sympathetic people. My so-called scream queen film!” Despite her diplomacy, Julie Ege balked at scenes in the script which would have required her to lie topless on an operating table, and a body double (baring not even the remotest resemblance to Norway’s finest) was substituted.
Jack Cardiff – even today – virtually disowns the film, claiming it was a lapse in judgment. It was to mark the end of his brief tenure as a director, and he returned to cinematography, photographing such diverse films as Death on the Nile, The Awakening, Amityville 3D and Conan the Destroyer. Cardiff appears not to have been the only one to have seen The Mutations as a mistake – Columbia shelved it for nearly two years, before releasing it in 1974.
Cut briefly by the BBFC, The Mutations finally surfaced in mid-November 1974, as the top half of a double bill with The Chosen. Cinema + TV Today were unusually positive in their appraisal: “A weirdie… The imaginative care with which Jack Cardiff has created an atmosphere of baroque Grand Guignol is so marked as to be disconcerting… Not for the squeamish or the sensitive.” Despite similarly positive reviews – and a glut of stills showing Tom Baker in a similar garb to that which he appeared wearing in Dr. Who, The Mutations was an unmitigated commercial disaster – taking just £894 in its first week. After a month in the West end, the package had scraped together just £2,559 – which would barely have been acceptable as an opening week gross. In America, the film had a less disastrous run, but hoary old publicity tricks such as blacked-out stills hardly induced the kind of receipts The Exorcist was enjoying.
The Radio Times wrote, “The discomfiting template may be that of Freaks (the party scene is a direct lift from Tod Browning’s 1932 classic) but its prurient atmosphere is most definitely rooted in 1970s British sleaze.”
British Horror Films wrote, “It’s a cross between every mad doctor film you’ve ever seen, and Tod Browning’s Freaks, yet without that film’s subtlety and pathos.” Film critic Leonard Maltin awarded the film a mixed 2 out of 4 stars, criticizing the film’s predictable story and what he called “grotesque elements and characters”
Donald Pleasence as Professor Nolter
Tom Baker as Lynch
Brad Harris as Brian Redford
Julie Ege as Hedi
Michael Dunn as Burns
Scott Antony as Tony
Jill Haworth as Lauren
Olga Anthony as Bridget
Lisa Collings as Prostitute
Joan Scott as Landlady
Toby Lennon as Tramp
John Wreford as Policeman
Eithne Dunne as Nurse
Richard Davies as Doctor