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DVD SAVANT

The Creeping Flesh


The Creeping Flesh
Columbia TriStar
1973 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 94 min. / Street Date June 8, 2004 / 24.96
Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Lorna Heilbron, George Benson, Kenneth J. Warren, Duncan Lamont
Cinematography Norman Warwick
Art Direction George Provis
Film Editor Oswald Hafenrichter
Original Music Paul Ferris
Written by Peter Spenceley & Jonathan Rumbold
Produced by Norman Priggen, Michael P. Redbourn, Tony Tenser
Directed by Freddie Francis

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

By 1973 the classic wave of British horror was all but spent, and The Creeping Flesh has a strong feeling of a good idea squandered with an ordinary presentation. Actually, the film has two or three ideas that don't really mix. Peter Cushing is a meek but not particularly interesting scientist with a lovely daughter; her obsession with her mother and his desire to study the immortal god of a primitive tribe don't have much to do with each other. Add in a mildly sinister half-brother played by Christopher Lee, and a story might emerge. As with many Hammer efforts, the film only starts to get going just as the curtain is about to ring down.

Synopsis:

Scientist Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing) returns from New Guinea with the massive skeleton of a proto-man who may have been the God of a primitive tribe. His daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron) has been staving off bankruptcy in his absence, and his half-brother James (Christopher Lee) has no intentions of bailing him out financially but would like to steal his new discovery. Meanwhile, Emmanuel discovers something even more disturbing about the giant skeleton - when it gets wet, living flesh begins to grow over its corroded bones. Perhaps it is a supernatural "God". Hildern distills a weakened serum from the skeleton's flesh and injects Penelope with it, convinced it is an inoculation against "Pure Evil." But Penelope has already discovered that her mother Marguerite (Jenny Runacre) did not die when she was a baby but was a "fallen woman" who had to be locked up for twenty years in James' asylum. Either influenced by the serum or traumatized by the news about her mother, Penelope becomes unbalanced, puts on a red dress and goes out into the night as if possessed by her mother's spirit.

The Creeping Flesh has some agreeably wild ideas but doesn't make a strong impression. I say that because I usually have a photographic memory for films of this kind and just a couple weeks after seeing it, the film is a fuzz again. The actual production is decent and the acting is fine, but both story and direction lack focus and commitment.

The plot reminds us of the equally unmemorable The Oblong Box. A professor brings a primitive relic back to England and unwittingly unleashes its curse on the colonial nation. That main story is fairly compelling, especially when we're presented with an eight-foot monster skeleton that, when it gets wet, grows tissue on its bones. More exposition lets us know that this might be the living diety of the New Guinea tribesmen, and that Cushing's professor may be resurrecting something akin to one of H.P. Lovecraft's "old ones," the forgotten gods of darkness and horror.

That sounds terrific, but the story lurches in another direction. Cushing's Hildern creates his own Edward Jenner-like vaccine, against the "Pure Evil" that he believes the primitive creature represents. It's as effective as any well-intentioned but essentially silly gambit in a horror film, except here a dad is injecting his daughter with who-knows-what from a horrible monster. The film ends with some fairly unimpressive views of a "rude beast slouching toward Bethlehem," but our main theme turns out to be a tease. It's not unlike The Brides of Dracula, where we wait patiently to be confronted with the deadly brides of the title - who finally appear four minutes before the film ends. For most of the movie the mystery skeleton remains a pile of bones (mysteriously staying connected) and we see one finger recompose with some reasonably creepy flesh-growing effects. That's basically all that happens. There's no confrontation between humans and monsters, and we learn nothing.

When Cushing injects the monster vaccine into his daughter Heilbron we lose all respect for him as a coherent character. The serum apparently effects a negative personality change, and sets into motion some unsatisfactory plot turns.

The real energy is expended on the daughter's mania regarding her mysterious mother, which doesn't really connect with the vaccine. Penelope is the perfect Edwardian maiden, taking care of the house while daddy Cushing runs the family into debt with safaris to New Guinea. A secret held for seventeen years or so falls apart immediately upon Cushing's return - mommy didn't die long ago but has instead been kept all that time a raving thing in Uncle Christopher's looney bin. She dies, and Penelope breaks into the "secret room" where Mom's things are arranged as in a museum exhibit. Before you can say Lylah Clare, Penelope is injected with monster serum, takes on Mother's personality and visits a pub frequented by prostitutes, there to get involved with murder, kidnaping and one of Uncle Christopher's escaped mental patients (Kenneth J. Warren).

This is the "sins of the fathers" theme so familiar from films like Taste the Blood of Dracula and Demons of the Mind. English horror's lack of new themes seems to have led to scapegoating the "sins" of the new permissiveness on bad parenting. Even pictures like The Vampire Lovers change Cushing's kindly vampire hunter into a puritanical, angry father figure. Unfortunately, in The Creeping Flesh the theme doesn't connect with either the skeleton or the rest of the story, and seems to be a way of padding the story with scenes that don't require either main star.

The central flaw is the badly conceived professor Hildern. Cushing's character is such a softie that we don't for a moment connect him with Penelope's mother, a wild dancer and libertine portrayed by Jenny Runacre in unexciting flashbacks. Hildern's inconsistency with his wife and daughter - locking one up, injecting the other with a hairbrained serum - doesn't add up to anything that makes sense. The Creeping Flesh doesn't even imply undertones of incest frequently employed by other films like this. We don't buy the entire daughter subplot, and the movie lumbers to a dull finish.

Cushing and Lee are fine in their abbreviated roles; Lee's dishonest asylum director is suitably boorish. As is typical the film seems to have been designed to minimize his involvement. If the actors make little impact, it's because the film is diluted by too many scenes running off in other directions.

Freddie Francis advanced to director as proscribed by English industry practice, but with that same industry imploding all he ever got to direct really were horror films that he unfortunately deemed beneath his talent. A fantastic cameraman, Francis was never much interested in fantastic pictures. His Hammer films lack the spark of serious involvement shown by Terence Fisher or even John Gilling. The Creeping Flesh has some nice sets and decent camera angles, but there's no life at all to the flashback material. The literal approach robs the ending of any excitement, with the newly-resurrected native God barely glimpsed backlit in a robe and hat. Yes, the script is deficient, but Francis adds nothing.

(spoiler)

Even more indicative of the lack of inventiveness is the unimpressive opening, where scientist Hildern works in a lab that appears to be in some kind of limbo - no walls, just a blank background. The odd opening scene telegraphs an ending with a non-clever Cabinet of Caligari twist that reveals Cushing's real surroundings to be an asylum cell. But even madness doesn't explain Hildern's inconsistent actions.


Columbia TriStar's DVD of The Creeping Flesh looks fine, far better than the old Columbia laserdisc. Enhanced for 16:9, the film now has recognizable compositions and a reasonable look to it; before we couldn't even tell if it was flat-widescreen or anamorphic. Color is okay too and not the greenish tint of the older transfers. Trailers are included for 13 Ghosts, Mr. Sardonicus and The Revenge of Frankenstein but none for this film.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Creeping Flesh rates:
Movie: Fair++
Video: Very good
Sound: Very good
Supplements: trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 16, 2004





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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