The Freakmaker and Gattaca and five more movies



Today's movies include a 1980s noir, merging people with plants, fucking your way to the top, hiring a hooker to entrap your husband, a wordless stop-motion horror story, and two movies about outsmarting or succumbing to your genetic destiny.

• Baby Face (1934)
• Chloe (2009)
• The Freakmaker (1974)
• Gattaca (1997)
• Kill Me Again (1989)
• Mad God (2022)
• Tiptoes (2003)

It's a fine hand we've been dealt, and I'll recommend six out of seven. Gattaca is the best, but the weirdest one, the one that made me say WTF over and over, the one I suspect I'll remember clearest in a month, is The Freakmaker.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Baby Face (1934)

Inspired when a friend reads Nietzsche to her, Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) quits her job at her father's prohibition-era speakeasy or whorehouse, and moves to the big city. She travels by freight train like a hobo, and when she's caught she smiles real pretty for the railyard bull, lays down on a flat car and dims the lamp.

"Face life as you find it — defiantly and unafraid. Waste no energy yearning for the moon. Crush out all sentiment." 

In New York, Lily lands an office job with a company that has no openings, by sleeping with a pudgy assistant to get in the door. "Have you had any experience?" he asks, and she leads him into an empty office to answer the question.

In the filing department, she makes a good impression on the manager (John Wayne), and gets promoted to the mortgage department. Eventually she's caught in the act, which costs her boss his job, but Lily bats her eyes and gets promoted to the accounting department.

All the fucking around leads to scandal that eventually imperils the entire bank, so in a moment of perfect capitalism, the bank hires as its new CEO a polo-playing playboy (George Brent) who knows nothing about banking, but whose grandfather founded the company. This new CEO sees through Lily's shenanigans and transfers her to their Paris office, where the plot further proves its flexibility.

Screenplay by Darryl F. Zanuck, under a pseudonym. Zanuck, or course, was later the long-time studio head at 20th Century Fox. He didn't invent the casting couch but doubtless wore out the springs on a few, so I suspect this one came from his cum-stained heart.

Theresa Harris, one of the better-known black actresses of the time, plays 'Chico', Lily's family's housemaid. She quits and comes to New York with Lily, and they appear to be almost friends, which for its era seems almost as daring as the story.

Baby Face is a good movie, but not great, and its main value is to marvel at what offended people just a few generations ago. There's nothing explicit in either the dialogue or imagery, but it was considered so scandalous, it's often cited as "the last straw," the film that gave us the Hays Code.

In theatrical re-releases and TV airings of Baby Face, several minutes of cuts were made, leaving the film 'less offensive' but also incomprehensible. With most implications of sexual impropriety gone, what's the movie even about?

That's what I wondered, because some of those sanitized versions are still circulating today, and I accidentally watched one, before finding the real thing.

To be smarter than me and make sure you're watching the movie as it was made, look for a scene about twelve minutes in, where Lily's friend briefly reads from Will to Power, by Nietzsche. If the movie doesn't show the title of the book, you're watching a censored version of the film. Yup — even the book's title was considered too dangerous to the nation's morality.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Chloe (2009)

Let's start by saying, ignore that poster. It looks like an ad for some crappy new show on the WB, and Chloe is better than that.

Julianne Moore plays a gynecologist, married to Liam Neeson as a college lecturer. She thinks he's cheating on her with every young woman in his class, and I think so too, though the movie never makes it clear. She hires the titular (see what I did there?) prostitute Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) to see if he'd succumb to her, because, sure, hiring a hooker is what any woman in that situation would do. It gets weirder and somewhat softcore as the story rolls along.

Atom Egoyan has been making movies for a long time, and I've seen about half of them. He didn't write this — it's actually a remake of a French movie — but it fits him well. He tells stories about people with secrets and suspicions that usually, gradually reveal things the characters would never want you to know. I'd hate anyone doing that in real life, but it's enjoyable when Egoyan does it.

This is not his best, not his worst. It's interesting, and I'm giving it a thumbs-up, but it's unclear what you're supposed to take away from it. There are no likable characters, and almost none of the story's key plot points could conceivably happen, so there's nothing here that could relate to ordinary life. That's the Egoyan touch, too. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Freakmaker (1974)
a/k/a The Mutations

This is a genuinely creepy movie, which might as well be a sequel to Freaks.

Donald Pleasance stars, and hadn't yet become the caricature of himself that he later became, so he's effective in his role as a college teacher by day, mad scientist by night. He's experimenting with plant genes, the process of rot, and human genetics, toward some grand scheme melding plants, humans, and mildew into a new monster.

"We don't know yet how these mutations happen. But we do know that mutations can be induced, so that instead of endless accidental changes, we may be able to create the mutations of our choice and change our species, or improve it."

His assistant, Lynch, is played by Tom Baker, mere months before he became Doctor Who, but you wouldn't know him to see him, as he's wearing a mask to look severely deformed.

All the movie's other freaks are genuine, and there are lots. In addition to procuring victims for the mad scientist's experiments, Lynch also runs a traveling sideshow, which puts an array of different disabled characters on screen, not only acting and interacting but briefly explaining their deformities, as part of a freakshow.

Directed by Jack Cardiff, who was mostly a cinematographer (The African Queen, The Barefoot Contessa, War and Peace). His direction is fine, and some of the visuals are spectacular.

It's a better-than-average B-movie horror, a bit slow and grim, enlivened by gorgeous time-lapse sequences, and the generally respectful presence of circus freaks. Great jazz score, London locations, and dazzling color.

"So you see, our little experiment has worked." 

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Gattaca (1997)

In a surveillance society of the future, every child's personal genome is mapped at birth, their chance of disease pre-diagnosed, their career options planned. It's a very efficient way to run the world, but it's discrimination, the racism and sexism of the future.

Ethan Hawke has the wrong genetics for the job he wants, working in space. Instead he's a janitor, finds the work unfulfilling, so he undergoes some ingenious genetic masking techniques to escape his low biological caste. This is a not merely attempting to beat the predicted odds; it's a crime, and at any moment, a surprise blood check or urine sample could reveal him.

Gattaca is always interesting, smart, sometimes thrilling. It's a strange civil rights struggle against authority gone wrong, as authority usually does. Unlike Star Trek or Star Wars, it's idea-driven, not merely another story of a future war or future madman with a ray-gun. It's not for dummies, and if you pay attention, you'll be rewarded with a strong story, well told.

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol (The Host, In Time, The Truman Show), with small roles for Ernest Borgnine and Tony Shaloub, mid-size parts for Alan Arkin and Gore Vidal, and bigger parts for Jude Law and Uma Thurman.

Quibbles: Uma Thurman is given very little to do, and I hate the title, which rhymes with and brings to mind the Attica prison riot. I'll explain it, since the movie barely does: Hawke's character works for Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Kill Me Again (1989)

Writer-director John Dahl was a big deal in the early 1990s, with Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. This was his first feature, and it's similar to those — modern noir, femme fatale, big plot twists, etc.

Joanne Whalley is the girlfriend of savage psycho killer Michael Madsen, but she dumps him and steals the loot because she wants to go to Vegas and he doesn't.

She knows he'll chase after her, and especially after the money, and decides that her obituary is the only thing that would stop him. She hires private eye Val Kilmer to arrange her fake death.

The practicalities of faking someone's death are glossed over too quickly, and Kilmer is too young or too baby-faced to be a believable private eye, especially with the backstory and debt to the mob the script gives him. It's all far-fetched, but it has Madsen as a crazy bad guy, which is always worth watching, and the whole shebang is undeniably fun.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Mad God (2022)

This opens with a written rant from someone demented, threatening violence, and deserving a call to 9-1-1 and some serious psychiatric care. It's then revealed that the rant is from the Bible's Leviticus, where God threatens apocalyptic fury against any and all who don't drop to their knees and worship Him, obey Him. That's the God you know and love, but I don't.

My method is usually to hit 'play' knowing nothing about what I'm about to see, so it took five minutes for me to notice this was stop-motion animation — that's how fantastically it's done. I paused, Googled, and confirmed that this film is almost entirely comprised of stop-motion, by a Hollywood special effects guy named Phil Tippett, who's an enormous fan of the technique. And it's beautiful. 

But now's the part where I summarize a few elements of the plot, and I can't do it. I'm a word guy, but the movie is wordless, and to me it was plotless. Some evidence of a story can be discovered with online clicking, but since it eluded me while watching the film, it would be cheating to give you a gist when I didn't get it myself. 

Mad God is frickin' amazing to look at, and I have nothing but respect for the years of work Mr Tippett put into it. Alex Cox (Repo Man) appears toward the end. 

Verdict: YES, but take two aspirin first. The music and sound effects are a headache in the making.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Tiptoes (2003)

Matthew McConaughey plays Steven Bedalia, who's the only tall person in a family of little people. Steven hasn't told his girlfriend (Kate Beckinsale) this, and she's pregnant. Gregor Mendel can explain to you: there's a good chance that their baby will be a little, little person.

While he worries and wonders how to broach the subject, Steven's twin brother drops by unexpectedly, and he's a dwarf so the secret is out.

Bedalia's twin brother is played by Gary Oldman, and if you've seen a movie made in the last 40 years, you might've noticed that Oldman is full-size. I don't know whether he's walking on his knees in this movie or they used CGI to make him shorter, but it's a hellofa distraction from whatever else is going on. It's also gotta be offensive, but I couldn't get past the stupidity of it to find my way to being offended.

Tiptoes is not a comedy. It's a serious drama, with lots of conversations about the social and medical difficulties that little folks face. I learned a few things about dwarfism, and there's a message about acceptance, and yet, Oldman is there all though it, as a dwarf, doublecrossing the movie's point.

There are other problems, too, but so what? If you order ham on rye and the bread is moldy, it doesn't matter that they also forgot the mustard.

Written and directed by Matthew Bright (Freeway, Guncrazy), and it flopped so badly it ended his career.

Verdict: BIG NO.


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   



  1. Donald Pleasance made some really bizarre and interesting films. I like Freakmaker a lot. Cul-de-sac, Wake in Fright, THX 1138, Escape From New York, all interesting if not great.

    One of my favorites is Deathline. I know you're not a horror guy necessarily, but this is a strange, challenging film worth watching. The mood is palpable and creepy as hell, but also somewhat funny.

    His daughter Angela Pleasance was in a great film called symptoms, also very atmospheric and worth watching.


    I'll watch anything with Barbara Stanwyck in it. Not all her films are great, but they're almost all at least good, and she radiates intelligence, which is often reflected in her choice of projects. Her work with Capra, Sturges, Anthony Mann Sam Fuller, etc.

    1. She was on The Big Valley when I was a kid, a show I had no interest in, so when I started seriously watching old movies she was always a surprise, but yup. Agreed entirely. She broadcast brains, and that's something no amount of dramatic training can teach.

      THX 1138. I have tried too many times to watch that movie, and it's always been a lullaby. Wake in Fright, big yes.

    2. Claude "Mr. Stanwyck" ReignsNovember 12, 2022 at 9:49 PM


    3. Score. That's a delightful clip from a movie I've never seen, maybe never even heard of — a pretty dame with some guy who looks like Jane Fonda's dad.

      It *definitely* goes on my watchlist, grazi.

    4. Lady Eve is great, I'd be surprised if you didn't like it. Almost everything by Preston Sturges is delightful.

      Sullivan's Travels:


    5. The movie looks excellent. Never seen it. Obviously I have a blind spot the size of Preston Sturges. Thanks.


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