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Creeping Flesh, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 08 June 2004

The Creeping Flesh

Columbia Pictures
MPAA rating: PG
starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Lorna Heilbron, George Benson, Kenneth J. Warren, Duncan Lamont, Michael Ripper, Harry Locke.
director: Freddie Francis
film release year: 1973
DVD release year: 2004
film rating: Two Stars
sound/picture rating: Three-and-a-Half Stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

By the early 1970s, the great boom in British horror movies that started in the late 1950s and thundered along through the 1960s was running out of steam; “The Creeping Flesh” is a last gasp. Like many of the best British horror movies of this period, and a few of the worst, the movie costars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. However, by this time, Lee seems to have been regarded the bigger appeal, as he is given top billing, even though both Cushing and Lorna Heilbron have larger roles.

The movie was directed by Freddie Francis; he’s one of the greatest cinematographers in movie history, but what he really wanted to do was direct. Unfortunately, as a director, he was rarely much better than okay; eventually, he went back to photography.

The script is by Peter Spenceley (his only script) and Jonathan Rumbold (his only horror movie), and has a very peculiar premise and development. You can say this for “The Creeping Flesh:” there’s no other movie quite like this one, and its sheer unusualness does grant it a certain appeal.

The movie opens in 1896; we see Cushing on a very strange set—there’s lab equipment on tables all over the place, but the background is almost without dimension. There’s no sense of walls, just a vague gray light surrounding the tables. We hear Lee’s voice announce a visitor, and Cushing, playing Emmanuel Hildern, immediately starts relating what happened to him three years before.

He was a dedicated researcher hoping to uncover the causes of human evil; he is just returning to his manor in England, happily met by his adult daughter Penelope (Heilbron). He’s brought with him a grotesque, improbable skeleton with a huge, distorted skull; he says he found this more advanced skeleton beneath where Neandertal skeletons lay. He is sure that this holds the key to his research. His daughter has been longing for his return; her mother died when she was a child, and she’s lonely. But Emmanuel is much too wrapped up in his work to pay her much attention.

He does take the time to visit the insane asylum presided over by his half-brother James (Lee), who explains how he dealt with the death of Emmanuel’s wife. We learn that instead of dying when Penelope was a child, the wife has only recently died—a hopeless lunatic. Emmanuel is fearful that Penelope, too, will lose her mind.

Back home, Emmanuel again plunges into his research on the skeleton. He is convinced that evil is a literal disease, and that perhaps he can learn something from the skeleton to inoculate mankind against evil. He starts to wipe the skeleton, but when water touches a finger bone, it grows new flesh (and a fingernail). Astounded, he cuts off the finger—which requires the use of a hammer and chisel. Real skeletons are not so tenacious.

He withdraws blood from the new flesh and finds it is swarming with blood cells unlike those of a normal human being. I’ll say. They’re black discs with long, hair-like tentacles. When mixed with normal blood, the weird cells dominate and wipe out the others. Emmanuel is convinced he’s found the source of evil—and prepares an inoculation, which he administers to an evil-infected monkey.

Eureka. The monkey is cured. So Emmanuel then inoculates Penelope. Alas, the monkey is then found unconscious and twitching; its blood now swarms with the bad cells. Penelope goes berserk; she’s learned the truth about her mother, so she dons her mother’s red dress and dashes off to the nearest pub. Which is a lot nearer than the town seemed earlier.

The story occasionally returns to the icy, aloof James, who is engaged in some kind of experiments of his own. We eventually, thought not clearly, learn that he is also seek the source of evil, and has found some of those cells in his most violent patients.

There’s a good deal of running around, with Kenneth J. Warren turning up occasionally as a lunatic escaped from James’ asylum. Naturally, a wholly unacceptable coincidence puts the lunatic and the deranged Penelope in the same place, besieged by police.

The movie is based on a very strange, unpleasant premise: it equates insanity and evil. Evil people, according to this movie, are automatically violently insane; the possibility of any other variation does not even exist in this strange world. Evil is both a disease, however, and something else: James has a henchman steal that skeleton from Emmanuel’s lab, but, unfortunately, this takes place in a rainstorm.

Off screen, the flesh and all grows back—including a hooded cape—and the thing comes back to Emmanuel, seeking its missing finger. (The object doesn’t look like a finger, but rather like a lopped-off penis. I could understand it coming back for that, but not a mere finger.)

“The Creeping Flesh” is a remarkably good-looking movie; the colors are rich and varied, the sets are excellent, and there even is some location shooting near a river, presumably the Thames. The scenes of the creature walking in the rainy woods carry a disturbing impact, and are the most eerie scenes in the film.

But the story is jumbled and strange, with too many character and too much going on. The structure is jagged, with the lunatic introduced, then forgotten about until near the end. Of the characters, Emmanuel is a zealot and nothing else, making it hard to sympathize with him. James is cold, calculating and arrogant, but Lee sure looks great in this particular toupee and goatee. Penelope is pathetic but not really sympathetic—so there’s no one in the movie to identify with.

Despite its lush appearance and excellent cast—Cushing and Lee both deliver sharp performances—“The Creeping Flesh” is more of a curiosity than anything else. It was made neither by Hammer nor Amicus, the two studios responsible for most of the British horror of this period. You’d think that the actors and director, horror veterans, might have asked a few pointed questions about the strange story, but if they did, there’s no sign of it on screen.

The DVD is a standard production; the print is in excellent shape, but the sound is ordinary. The extras are limited to three trailers for other movies connected to this one only by the company that released them. If you’re a fan of Lee and/or Cushing, you won’t have to be advised to buy this DVD, but if you’re not, there’s little here for you.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital
aspect ratio:
special features: A few trailers from other films released by Columbia
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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