Donald Pleasance plays Professor Nolter, a brilliant biologist and geneticist who is working on creating animal / plant hybrids so that mankind can live by photosynthesis and the world hunger issue can be eradicated, which is fair enough. But why do the annoying (and really old) students in his seminar group keep disappearing, and what exactly is going on at the local Freakshow? That’s right, the local Freakshow. It’s that sort of film.
The Freakshow is the centre of the mystery, and is populated by a cast of real sideshow performers with a variety of deformities (including a man who can pop his eyeballs out of his sockets) and it is their presence that raises issues of exploitation and sensationalism. The majority of their screen time is documentary type footage of their tent show where they introduce themselves and their ‘talents’ in time honoured carnival style, but they also have some dramatic scenes that are deliberately staged to recall Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’, including appropriating some of the dialogue. These scenes have a real pathos that is not in the script, but written by their haunted faces, awkward movements, and the obvious sadness of their limited lives. In classic horror style they become killers at the end, of course, and give a fairly impressive demonstration of deadly knife throwing.
Pleasance is very understated and utterly convinces as a dedicated, if somewhat sardonic man of science. You could almost believe he might even be the hero of this story until you see him tenderly stroke a large rabbit before shoving it into the open trap of a massive carnivorous plant. No matter how many times I see this, it always makes me laugh.
Scott Anthony is the male lead (well, he shares the honour with screen vacuum Brad Harris) and is perfect casting as a know-it-all student with a shit quip for every occasion. Equally insufferable as sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brezska in Ken Russell’s shrill and embarrassing ‘Savage Messiah’, Anthony’s career ended here, too – I can’t say I’m sorry as he is one of the least likeable male actors I have ever seen, and I’ve watched films with all of the Baldwin brothers (Memo to the Baldwin Brothers: you have made life unnecessarily complicated by all becoming ‘the fat one’.)
The most striking element of the enterprise is Basil Kirchin’s amazing music, including extracts from his first ‘Worlds within Worlds’ LP and additional material written with John Nathan. Surprisingly experimental for a mainstream (horror or otherwise) film, it utilises trumpet, animal roars, hums, clicks, pops, scratchy strings and the sounds of autistic children to provide an avant garde accompaniment to the story, lending a gravitas to the action even when it gets really silly. The combination of music and image probably work best in the opening sequence: the stop-motion footage of flowers and toadstools growing is beautiful on its own terms, but Basil’s music and sound makes it transcendent.