The Five Laws of Movie Mutants

by Graham Edwards

A scene from Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' epic action adventure "Godzilla," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

A scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ epic action adventure “Godzilla,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

With Godzilla stomping once more on to our screens, Marvel’s X-Men heading for those days of future past, and a fresh batch of teenage turtles preparing to clamber out of the sewers, there’s never been a better time to reflect on that most enduring of movie icons: the mutant.

But what exactly is a mutant? It isn’t as if they all look the same. In a police line-up, who’s going to mistake Michelangelo for Mystique? (And will the giant lizard even fit in the interrogation room?) Yet mutants they all undoubtedly are. So what are the rules?

Well, the Oxford English Dictionary describes a mutation as an “alteration or change in form”. In other words, a mutant is any critter that shouldn’t look the way it does. Sometimes a mutant’s abnormalities occur naturally. More often than not (in the movies at least) they happen because some idiot forgot to shut down the nuclear reactor.

Tod Browning's "Freaks" from 1932Mutants in the Movies

An early example of a movie that deals with mutants is the 1932 film Freaks, directed by Tod Browning, just a couple of years before the Hays Code irradiated Hollywood with its sanitising beam and effectively told filmmakers to play nice. With its cast of genuine carnival performers including conjoined twins, the Human Torso and the Stork Woman, Freaks makes for unsettling viewing even today, yet for the most part treats its subject matter with admirable respect.

No doubt experts will weigh in to tell me the cast of Freaks were not mutants in the strictest sense, any more than John Hurt was portraying a mutant when he played John Merrick in The Elephant Man. But chances are high that the average moviegoer, upon seeing any character whose anatomy deviates wildly from the norm, will shout: “Mutant!”

However, if you’re looking for the best way to put a mutant on the screen, look no further than The Elephant Man. Merrick’s startling physical appearance was achieved by encasing Hurt in elaborate prosthetics created by Christopher Tucker, making the film a perfect exponent of the First Law of Movie Mutants:

  • If it’s a deformity you want, it’s make-up effects you need

Of course, there are exceptions to this law – Freaks is one, The Hills Have Eyes (1977) is another. In the latter, actor Michael Berryman’s genetic disorder ectodermal dysplasia was behind the physiognomy of Pluto, one of horror cinema’s most iconic mutant characters.

But really, it’s all about rubber masks and foam latex appliances. The schlockier the better. In movies like The Toxic Avenger, Basket Case, and Slither, the audience is bombarded with ever-more gruesome make-up effects, all with a single purpose: to gross you out. Thus we discover our Second Law of Movie Mutants:

  • Horror is where it’s at

Science Goes Bad

The Third Law of Movie Mutants is a cautionary one:

  • Don’t leave the plutonium where someone could trip over it

During the 1950s, the atomic age spawned a whole new breed of movie mutants: ordinary animals given extraordinary powers by an unhealthy dose of gamma rays.

Radioactive mutants call for more elaborate visual effects than just a rubber mask. The giant ants of Them! were brought to life primarily by using full-scale mechanical props, while It Came from Beneath the Sea boasts a bridge-bashing octopus created by stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen.

For economy and ease of animation, the giant octopus in "It Came Beneath the Sea" had only six tentacles

For economy and ease of animation, the giant octopus in “It Came Beneath the Sea” had only six tentacles

Replace radiation with toxic waste and you get either a bunch of Eight Legged Freaks, or those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I mentioned earlier. In their 1990 screen outing, the avenging amphibians were brought to life by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. In the upcoming 2014 reboot, the visual effects burden is shared between ILM, Image Engine and Legacy Effects.

Behind the scenes of "Godzilla" (1954) - image via Retronaut.com

Behind the scenes of “Godzilla” (1954) – image via Retronaut.com

The most famous product of misdirected radiation is, of course, Gojira – better known in the Western world as Godzilla. The huge mutant lizard – an unfortunate by-product of a nuclear test explosion – flattened his first city block in Ishirō Honda’s classic film of 1954. Now this legendary monster’s on the loose again, in Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla (2014). The special effects credits in the Japanese original include Teizô Toshimitsu with the wonderful job description: Monster Builder. The latest outing features visual effects from a host of vendors including:

(To find out exactly how Godzilla’s mega-monster was created, order your copy of Cinefex issue 138, out in mid-June and featuring the definitive behind-the-scenes story about the film’s visual effects. And visit Retronaut for more great behind-the-scenes shots from the original movies.)

Messing with Nature

The Fourth Law of Movie Mutants is a kissing cousin of the Third Law:

  • Man makes mutants

Yes, we’re talking about all those thrillers featuring genetic mutations, military experiments … in short, any scenario whereby man has deliberately messed with nature. Whatever the dastardly misdeed, you can be sure of one thing: it’s not going to end well.

Mutants in this category range from the super-fish of Piranha to the hyper-sharks of Deep Blue Sea. Factor in guilty pleasures like Jonathan King’s Black Sheep, and you’ll soon realise that this enduring theme has achieved the kind of mythical status best appreciated in the comfort of your own home, preferably with a jug of cold beer at your side and in the company of friends just as ready as you to throw pretzels at the screen.

Laughable though much of this particular brand of mutant mayhem might be, the “man-made mutants” sub-genre isn’t without its genuine chillers. The Mist conceals an extraordinary menagerie of half-seen monsters – not to mention a monster of an ending. The Fly – both the 1958 original and the 1986 remake – is a compelling cautionary tale about what happens when you fail to keep a can of Raid beside the teleporter. And I defy anyone to watch the classic “room of failed clones” scene from Alien: Resurrection without feeling queasy.

The Space Bug from David Cronenberg's "The Fly"

The walking Space Bug from the finale of David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” functioned off a counterbalanced slave system, with the puppet moving in a direction opposite to the movements of operator John Berg, who was harnessed behind the creature’s mobile support system

Mutants to the Max

In most of the above-mentioned films, the mutants are there to exploit our fears. Fear of nuclear tests, fear of deviancy, fear of the unknown. But there are a few films – just a few – that take a more thoughtful approach. These our the movies that fall under The Fifth and Final Law of Movie Mutants:

  • Mutants can be a serious business

First up in this category is John Carpenter’s The Thing, which explores ideas of identity and what it is to be human. How does it do this? By letting the mutations happen right in front of our eyes. Thanks to Rob Bottin’s amazing practical effects, men transform in outrageous fashion into the most eye-boggling array of movie monsters ever put on the screen. You could argue that the end result is just another monster movie – though an extraordinarily good one – but what sets The Thing apart is that the theme of mutation isn’t simply tacked on for the sake of cheap thrills; it actually drives the story.

Kuato and George puppet - "Total Recall" (1990)

Even with a computer to record and perform the lip-sync articulations, “Total Recall” Kuato-and-George puppet required as many as twenty on-set operators

Similarly, the colony of downtrodden Martian mutants in Total Recall (1990) is not just there to titillate (with the possible exception of the triple-breasted woman), but is an essential plot element. Under Paul Verhoeven’s direction, Total Recall can hardly be called subtle, but its subtext of prejudice and exploitation is handled with surprising sensitivity.

Total Recall used all the tricks in the book to create its cast of mutants. According to special make-up effects supervisor Rob Bottin, “Mutants are a lot of fun in terms of design because there are really no rules – a mutant can be anything. It was Paul’s approach that as we revealed each mutant, the deformities would be progressively more shocking.”

Bottin’s biggest effects challenge in Total Recall was Kuato, the parasitic twin of George. To create the illusion of the tiny human emerging from his brother’s abdomen, actor Marshall Bell wore a full-body prosthetic. “His jawline was joined to the prosthetic,” explained Bottin, “which had a parachute harness to support Kuato’s mechanical head and all the cables necessary to operate the arms.” For close-ups and dialogue scenes, the prosthetic approach was abandoned in favour of a fully mechanical Kuato-and-George puppet. “The arms on both Kuato and George moved via a slave mechanism operated and performed by a single puppeteer.”

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" posterThe other popular example of mutants done right is, of course, the X-Men series. Professor Charles Xavier’s private academy first unleashed its class of misfits on to cinema screens in 2000, elaborating on Total Recall’s “mutants as an underclass” theme with its story of politics, prejudice and superpowers.

The popular Marvel franchise shows no signs of slowing as we anticipate this month’s release of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Visual effects vendors for the new film include Digital Domain, MPC, CinesiteHydraulx, Rising Sun Pictures, Legacy Effects and The Third Floor and we’ll be taking a look at them shortly, right here on the Cinefex blog.

The movies are full of mutants – which one’s your favourite, and why? Are mutants a serious business, or it all just shock treatment? And are there any Mutant Laws I’ve failed to include? It’s over to you!

Total Recall photographs copyright © 1990 by Tri-Star Pictures, Inc. Godzilla (2014) photograph courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and copyright © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. & Legendary Pictures Productions LLC