THE CREEPING FLESH *** UK 1973 Dir: Freddie Francis. 92 mins
Those days of yore when the evil practices came from ‘Pagan’ continents. The hideous practices of the voodoo, ancient curses, potions, and deadly artifacts. In these times of demonic children and houses, possessed toys, killers that lurk next door etc, the horror of the deemed uncivilized world seems tame yet comforting. THE CREEPING FLESH (1973) directed by Freddie Francis and written by Peter Spenceley and Jonathan Rumbold, with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing is like a comfortable chair and cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter evening. The feeling of old friends is a story that is part Victorian where the world is put right at the end.
The picture opens with Professor Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing), a Victorian-era scientist excitedly telling a young doctor in what appears to be a large white laboratory. Emmanuel is excitedly telling the doctor that he needs help because he has discovered a form of evil that is real. Evil is a living physical disease that is manifested in living spidery organisms that are present in the blood. This material came to form a large humanoid skeleton that he unearthed in New Guinea and brought back to England. The discovery and isolation of this disease will win him a prize and cement his reputation among the greats.
Hildern’s daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron) is happy and anxious to have him back in her life as she has been confined to the home Emmanuel has little time to be happy as he receives word that his wife, institutionalized for years, has finally died in a letter sent by brother James Hildern (Christopher Lee), who runs the asylum where Hildern’s wife had been held in secret. Mental illness in a spouse who was confined to asylum was considered a scandal at the time. Professor Van Helsing in Stoker’s original DRACULA (1897), alluded to the fact he has a wife in name only. Penelope does not know her mother was hidden in this way.
Almost as a side plot, Emmanuel finds that the large skeleton grows flesh when in contact with water. He reviews myths and finds he can draw a serum from the flesh on the finger. Penelope learns of her mother’s and reacts with shock and an outburst that puts fear in Emmanuel that his daughter has inherited his wife’s insanity and injects her with the serum. The result is a rampage and the creation of a murderous being similar in theme to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The base instincts take over in Penelope as she shuffles off her conventionalism.
The film, directed by Freddie Francis, starred Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The style of this film is similar to that of Hammer Films which was being imitated by many companies often using the same actors and crew. Freddie Francis directed Hammer’s most successful Dracula film, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968). He uses similar framing and moments of closeup where the actor is talking directly to the audience as he did in that film. The pace is fast if not a bit on the talky side. The words are well worth it in that they are delivered by Cushing and Lee in precise often cynical tones. The ending of course has a twist to it.
THE CREEPING FLESH (1973) is calm by today’s standards of horror for gore and the beginning of sexual references in genre film. It is a course in how to act, move and create Victorian characters by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee who once again are professional in performance and on-screen collaboration even when some of the dialogue and film stories go the other way.
Review by Terry Sherwood