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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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:
Video: Very good
Sound: Very good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 16, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson