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Cinedelphia Film Festival Review: THE MUTATIONS (1974)

Welcome to Screen Invasion’s coverage of the first annual Cinedelphia Film Festival, a celebration of the City of Brotherly Love’s lesser known cinematic history (the motto: “we’re more than just Rocky”). A month long filmic carnival running from April 4 – 27, the Fest offers everything from a tour of The Stoogeum, a local museum dedicated solely to the Three Stooges, lost or little seen short & repertory films, and full blown local premieres, such as the Fantastic Fest favorite, Vanishing Waves. If you’re in the area, join in on the fun, and if you’re a SI reader, get ready for select coverage of Cinedelphia’s feature film selections. 

For our second night at the mausoleum, local repertory group Exhumed Films presents legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s 1974 oddity, The Mutations (a/k/a The Freakmaker)

 When film dies…so does Exhumed Films.

Exhumed Films was started by four friends (Dan Fraga, Jesse Nelson, Harry Guerro and Joseph Gervasi) out of the Philadelphia/South Jersey area who were tired of watching lost schlock classics on “shitty VHS bootlegs” and wanted to see the films projected as they were originally intended: on 35 and 16mm film.

The Harwan was great…a shithole. But great. Kind of terrible in a beautiful way.

Their first show, a double bill of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and The Gates of Hell, was held in 1997 at the dilapidated Harwan Theater in Mt. Ephraim, NJ. After a surprising turn-out (including “some weird kid from the internet”, Nick Lombardo, who led the night’s Q&A session with Dan & Joseph before the film), the group decided to continue on…and even mocked up a few t-shirts to sell at their shows. Exhumed made their name in the late nineties and early aughts by showing stalwart titles such as EVIL DEAD II (the title they’ve shown the most), Halloween and Phantasm, while mixing in genre obscurities such as the Canadian rubber monster goof fest, The Boogens, or the notorious Italian found footage gem, Cannibal Holocaust.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II…that’s one we can’t find for some reason. And it sucks, because I saw that movie on opening night so prints definitely do exist.

Over the years, the group has occupied several spaces (including run-down, ex-vaudville house, the Broadway Theater in Pittman, New Jersey, which has since caught fire and remains closed for business), put on a showing of Friday the 13th 3D in actual 3D (meaning old school “Silver Screen”) and even had Bruce Campbell premiere a print of Man With the Screaming Brain before it was released (oh, and another film “The Chin” starred in was also featured that night).

The Hoyts was the best…because we could’ve dumped a body back there and the manager, this 21-year-old kid, would’ve just shrugged and been like ‘whatever’. Hell, I don’t think he ever told ‘Corporate’ that we were doing anything there. That ‘rental fee’ went right into his pocket. And we would just have huge crowds because people would show up for a late-night movie and see all there was what we were playing. We’d say, ‘wanna see something like Cannibal Holocaust’? Weirdly enough…they did. But we could’ve never had the Horror Thon there.

The Exhumed Films 24 Hour Horror-Thon has been my favorite weekend of the year for the six its been in existence. I love it more that Christmas. For any die hard horror geek, the thought of being locked in an auditorium (this one located in the International House on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus) for a day straight while 16 or 35mm prints unspool non-stop induces a zen-like state that most will never know. It’s an experience lost in this day and age of digital projection; one that only select places in the world offer (like the New Beverly in Los Angeles, whose owner, Quentin Tarantino, frequently trades film prints with Harry Guerro). Along with the Horror Thon, the group also runs a yearly twelve hour Ex-Fest at the beginning of the summer (whose lineup is solely made up of exploitation pictures, and has been guaranteed to contain “one of the most fucked up things we’s ever shown” this year) and even Ape Fest, a marathon of all five of the original Planet of the Apes movies in 2011.

With the rise in blu ray and DVD, when you can even get some of the most obscure titles you’ve probably never heard of, it’s hard to keep going sometimes…but, through Harry mostly, we find that there’s still a lot, A LOT, of weird shit out there to play.

The Mutations fits squarely into that “weird shit” category. In fact, I’d venture to say that the film is so odd, that exhibiting it directly after the Q&A session almost felt like a way to prove the group’s point. Directed by legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus), it’s a strange, little piece of English sleaze revolving around a brilliant biologist, Dr. Noller (Donald Pleasence), who is having a carnival freak kidnap his students for use in his horrible, plant based, cross-genetic experiments. Dr. Noller is, in typical mad scientist fashion, driven to help perfect the world with his ability to cure its oddities and outcasts, the guise under which he gets Lynch (’70s Dr. Who alum, Tom Baker) to help him abduct beautiful women for the sake of his “research”.

Lynch lives and works amongst a nearby carnival that boasts a wide arrangement of “freaks”. He runs the show with a iron fist, much to the chagrin of his fellow performers, and even incorporates some of Dr. Noller’s failed results into the troupe’s act. The whole of the carnival sequences is where the most obvious parallels between Cardiff’s The Mutations (which also went under the name The Freakmaker in the U.S.) to Freaks, the infamous work of Todd Browning. Both films actually cast  real sideshow performers, adding a bizarre sense of realism to the proceedings. Unfortunately, where Browning centered his 1932 classic around the genetically unlucky as a way to explore them as people first and horror film fodder second, Cardiff never really explores his band of outsiders in greater detail beyond how they function within their sideshow society. It adds a somewhat icky layer of exploitation to the proceedings that is both fascinating and slightly off-putting.

If The Mutations has one fatal flaw, it’s the pacing. While the opening credits are laid over some truly stunning (and theme establishing) stop-motion photography of plants sprouting from the ground, it takes a while for Cardiff’s film to truly bloom. Really, it isn’t until the final third of the movie, when Dr. Noller creates a rubbery, half-man/half-plant Frankenstein monster that roams about, looking for people to drain via its venus fly-trap center, that The Mutations comes to life at all. While it’s certainly fun to watch Pleasence and Baker ham it up, this is still a 42nd Street picture, and is paced accordingly.

While it isn’t a mostly forgotten classic like Cardiff’s 1968 Rod Taylor/Jim Brown “men on a mission” picture, Dark of the Sun, The Mutations does have its own unique, creepy charm that makes it worth seeking out (there’s a solid DVD release from Subversive Cinema that still looks to be in print). Pleasence injects his usual crazy-eyed genre overacting (his final comeuppance is especially great) and the film is just shadowy enough to create an uneasy sense of dread (though strangely enough, Cardiff’s directorial efforts never looked as good those he shot for others). But the screening almost seemed secondary to the rousing, lengthy Q&A session that saw fans sharing their favorite Exhumed memories (one revolving around cake and softcore porn even made the usually fearless Fraga wince a bit) and finally getting to hear the full story about the time the group booked ’80s rock “legends” ASIA to play for roughly 75 people. While the picture itself had zero to do with Philadelphia, Exhumed Films have proven themselves essential to any real Philly film fan’s cinematic experience during their 16 years of existence.

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The Author

Jacob Knight

Jacob Knight

Jacob Knight is a screenwriter, novelist and journalist from Slotter, Mass. He is most times fueled by scotch, horror films and the Criterion Collection. He currently resides in Philadelphia, PA with his wife and cantankerous Westie pup.