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Creeping Flesh, The
Soon after appearing together in the clever sci-fi thriller Horror Express (1972), actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee set to work on The Creeping Flesh (1973) which, like their previous effort, centers around a malevolent archeological find come to life. The Creeping Flesh's reputation has grown over the years, and there's no denying that it is ambitious in some ways, though mostly it's a pastiche of ideas that completely unravel by the film's last act.
An aged scientist, Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing), tells the story in flashback, from an abstract laboratory with white, featureless walls. Several years earlier, in 1893, Hildern returns home from New Guinea, where he discovered the remains of a large (about eight feet in height) skeleton. Though daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron) reminds her father of growing financial concerns, Emmanuel is certain the creature's discovery will win him money and prestige. However, the scientist also learns of the death of his wife, who for years had been committed to an insane asylum run by his competitive half-brother, James (Christopher Lee).
As Emmanuel begins cleaning the creature's remains with ordinary water, human-like living flesh begins to appear (via crude stop-motion) on one of the overtly phallic giant fingers that Emmanuel has sprinkled with water. Though such a fantastic finds raises far more questions than answers, the scientist reaches the completely unfounded conclusion that he has discovered the very nature of evil, in scientifically definable terms. Living in great fear that his daughter may have inherited her mother's insanity, Emmanuel unwisely inoculates her with a mixture of the creature's blood.
The Creeping Flesh has been praised in some circles for its ambitious exploration on the nature and unleashing of evil, which in turn is applied to Victorian values and sexual repression. In the end such efforts are pretty muddled, but the film does work in other interesting ways.
Though Lee gets top billing, the film is really Cushing's show, which through unhappy circumstances proved somewhat autobiographical, and offers an unusually personal performance by the actor. Cushing's own beloved wife, Helen, had died the previous January, about a year before The Creeping Flesh went into production. Although the actor busied himself with work, he was still very much consumed with grief, nearly walking off the production of Horror Express only months before. In The Creeping Flesh he's burdened with scenes where he reacts to news of his wife death, is callously handed her death certificate, and momentarily believes his wife is still alive (it's really daughter Penelope, dressed in her mother's clothes). In the latter scene, Penelope confronts her father for keeping her mother's fate a secret, and her harsh words reduce poor Emmanuel to tears. For perhaps the only time in his career, the meticulous, carefully considered actor seems to be living the part, and Cushing's tears seem all too real.
Emmanuel's fear that his wife's madness may be hereditary leads to his desperately irrational behavior and unfounded scientific conclusions. But Emmanuel's wacky theories are appropriate to the character. Movie scientists often yearn to bring a lost love back from the dead, but it's unusual to have a scientist whose faulty logic is dramatically justified, and Cushing's all-too-real performance only adds to this.
The rest of the picture is more conventional, if busy. Lee, in an undistinguished role, has his own wacky laboratory, reminiscent of the one in The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), complete with a severed arm, a brain, and a heart floating in electrically charged tanks of water. An escaped lunatic from Lee's asylum burns up a lot of running time but is barely connected to the main story. The underrated, versatile Duncan Lamont plays the inspector on the case. Michael Ripper makes the most of a small role as a deliveryman.
The Creeping Flesh also borrows heavily from other films, most obviously The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It's neither as clever nor exciting as Horror Express, and The Creeping Flesh looks much cheaper, even though the budgets were probably similar. Peter Newbrook's The Asphyx (1973), shot concurrently on stages nearby, explores similar themes somewhat more successfully. (The booklet included with this DVD has a photo of that film's star, Robert Stephens, visiting the set with Cushing and Lee. They had at least one thing in common; all three had played Sherlock Holmes in big screen adaptations.)
The creature itself is an unfortunate design, seen for most of the film in the form of an almost comical prop. The giant skull is endowed with a fixed scowl, like a Paul Blaisdell monster for AIP. Emmanuel's skeleton isn't just complete, it's also wired together. Like the screeching of tires whenever an airplane lands, an only-in-the-movies convention is the notion that the bones that make up a skeleton stick together all by themselves. When a clumsy henchman of half-brother James steals the thing, the skeletal arm dangles listlessly eventually plurpling into a rain barrel. It turns up later looking like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, albeit with a stumpy, three-fingered hand.
Video & Audio
This reviewer hasn't seen the Columbia TriStar Region 1 version, previously reviewed by DVD Savant. Both are 16:9 enhanced, and the image of the PAL is an enormous improvement over VHS and laserdisc versions, which were quite poor with especially murky color. This transfer captures the unique (and intentional?) visual design, which favors singularly harsh lighting and brownish colors. The film elements have a few splices and dirt, but overall the presentation is so far ahead of all previous video versions this reviewer was quite pleased. The mono sound was very clean, and there are no subtitles. The IMDB lists a 99 minute running time, while Savant's review claims 94. Watching this PAL version on my NTSC set, the film clocked in at 88 minutes, though I didn't notice any missing footage, nor did the film appear sped up.
DD Video has once again made the most of a minor film. As with Night of the Big Heat , The Quatermass Xperiment, and other titles, The Creeping Flesh comes with a lavish, full color 24-page booklet, full of great photos, cast and crew data, and keen observations by writers Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby.
The DVD also features an Audio commentary with star Christopher Lee and film historian Marcus Hearn. Though not quite as enjoyable as the audio commentary on DD Video's concurrent Night of the Big Heat , this is still an excellent track, memorable for Lee's personal comments on longtime friend and colleague Cushing, who died in 1994. Watching footage of the late actor is depressing, Lee admits. "I miss him terribly, still," he says. "I loved him."
As with Night of the Big Heat, trailers are included for The Abominable Snowman (in 4:3 letterbox format), Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (4:3 full frame), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (16:9 enhanced), and Quatermass and the Pit (4:3 matted), as well as a 4:3 full frame trailer for The Creeping Flesh. A small Gallery rounds out the extras.
The Creeping Flesh is an ambitious but minor horror entry, though Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are, as always, fun to watch. And DD Video, that rising star among U.K. labels, has packaged another winner, one that collectors and fans of British horror films will want to own.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.