Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence) is tutoring his university students on the subject of genetic mutations, a subject he knows very much about, and as he shows a film reel of time lapse plant photography he goes into some detail about how if it were not for mutations, evolution would never have happened and none of us would be here today. But the Professor has a deeper interest in the subject than even his students suppose, as he has been conducting experiments on mixing plant with animal life to create a new superbeing that will be ecologically sound as well as the next step in human advancement. What could possibly go wrong?
Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks has cast a long shadow over the horror film genre, both in the sympathetic manner it treated its "outsider" characters and the way it made certain areas of its audience uncomfortable in simply depicting what this update on the theme would call the "mutations". Even in the seventies, however, the presentation of them would have seemed old hat, as we moved into supposedly more enlightened times and no longer put the physically disabled on show to be cooed over by the more bodily fortunate, and this is only one reason why this film was generally frowned upon in much the same way the Browning work had been.
Of course, it might have had the brilliant cinematographer Jack Cardiff at the helm, but that did not mean the script was any good, and pretty much amounted to a reheated collection of mad scientist clichés that were out of date in the nineteen-forties. That doesn't mean you cannot indulge yourself in enjoying a retro-styled horror, but this film was fairly grotty throughout, and unsure of whether to take its subject matter on sympathetically, or go for the yuck factor. Therefore the henchman to Professor Nolter is the facially disfigured Lynch, played by Tom Baker shortly before he got the Doctor Who job on television, and slathered in so much makeup that he would be unrecognisable if it were not for that distinctive voice.
Lynch runs a carnival sideshow where the results of the Professor's research go to reside after he's finished with them, which basically means they get put on display and die off soon after. One of the new exhibits is a student of his who was kidnapped by Lynch and turned into one of his Venus flytrap people, which we're meant to regard as a step up in evolution, but has the Professor struggling to explain precisely what use it it would be as he shows American visitor Brian (former muscleman Brad Harris, also producer) around his lab and feeds a hapless bunny to a giant carnivorous plant he has cultivated. Brian is friends with the students who have lost their pal to the experiments, and naturally (or unnaturally) those students are next on the menu.
It's all a bit embarrassing really, with no justification offered for, say, the freak show halfway through other than the audience might be curious to see some deformed people, which is a bit of fun if it's the chap named Popeye who can make his eyes, well, pop out, but is a lot less salubrious when we're invited to view a human skeleton and she turns out to be a woman with anorexia. The ringmaster to all of this is the dwarf Burns, played by the genuinely talented Michael Dunn in one of his last films before his early death, and it's sad to see him try to make the best of a demeaning role when you know he could have done better. But perhaps it's better not to dwell on the less pleasing aspects when the enterprise is so wrongheaded it becomes almost entertaining if you have a strong sense of humour, from the pathos-laden scene where Lynch goes to a prostitute to pay her to say "I love you" to the way out sounds of experimental pioneer, this time in music, Basil Kirchin on the soundtrack.