The Mutations (1974)
The same year The Mutations came out, 1974, was also the year that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre hit the theaters. The latter was a prime example of inventive indie film making, marking a change in how horror films were made and helping to open up a whole new era. Though not made by any of the big British studios, such as Hammer or Amicus, The Mutations represented the same type of b-level horror film the British had been churning out since the 1950s. At first quite innovative itself, even Hammer was fighting to get people interested in their movies at the time.
1974 was also the year that Doctor Who transitioned from the Third Doctor, played by John Pertwee, to the Fourth. Tom Baker, who would play the new incarnation as well as be the longest tenured actor in the role, had some roles that he could be proud of prior to his most famous. Chiefly that would be the evil wizard Koura in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, doing the seemingly impossible and being as memorable as Ray Harryhausen's special effects. That was fortunate, as it meant that most people would forget that he was one of the two main villains in The Mutations as well.
Dr. Nolter (Donald Pleasence) is obsessed with advancing human evolution and, to do so, he has come up with the idea to combine human and plant DNA. In order to achieve this he needs subjects, and he has carnival owner Lynch (Baker), a former freak with Proteus syndrome, gather them while promising that the research will provide a cure and make Lynch look normal. Lynch's partner Burns (Michael Dunn) tries to look the other way as the failed results end up as part of his freak show.
After their friend Bridget (Olga Anthony) goes missing, Nolter's students Tony (Scott Antony), Lauren (Jill Haworth) and Hedi (Julie Ege), as well as visiting professor Brian (Brad Harris) begin to get suspicious. Tony goes to explore, only to become one of Nolter's subjects, and the first one to survive the process. Unfortunately that means he has been grossly mutated and must now exist on human blood. After Hedi is captured Brian also figures out what is going on and rushes to stop Nolter, not knowing that Tony plans on doing the exact same.
There is nothing original about this at all. It is The Island of Dr. Moreau, only combining plant and human DNA instead of genetically enhancing animals. On top of that, Freaks is also heavily plundered to the b-plot, which involves the other sideshow performers rebelling against cruel treatment by Lynch. Other than Pleasence and Baker, Michael Dunn is the most recognizable actor here, as he played a recurring villain on Wild Wild West. Dunn managed to finish his scenes for this movie before, unfortunately, passing away.
Donald Pleasence appears sober in this (unlike in a lot of his more phoned-in work), but also seems like he couldn't be bothered to wake up from his nap long enough to go through the motions. The performance has been called low-key, but it really appears to be a case of obviously wanting to be somewhere - in fact, anywhere - else than doing this skid-row film. Sure, there are some interesting, puppet-like plant effects and Scott Antony's costume is not totally awful, and director Jack Cardiff, who usually stuck to cinematography, is wise enough to use enough shadows and quick cuts to not let the audience get a full look at it.
Still, there is absolutely nothing in this movie that hasn't been seen in better ones, particularly since it wholesale rips off better films. Pleasence was an established and pretty much reliable talent, but Baker is lucky the BBC didn't think twice after seeing this. It's not that his performance is bad - he manages to camp it up, even though it's a character that would cause a lot concern if tried today - it's that everything else around this is just so bad it's not even laughable.
If it is imperative that one must see what the Doctors were up to outside of their most well-known role, there is much better out there for Tom Baker. As for The Mutations, since Donald Pleasence obviously couldn't stay awake to make it, there is no reason to waste the time viewing it. Except for some nudity it was the same schlock that had been churned out for nearly two decades at the time, and it is quite clear it was time for a change.
The Mutations (1974)
Time: 92 minutes
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Tom Baker, Brad Harris, Scott Antony, Julie Ege
Director: Jack Cardiff