|The Creeping Flesh
|Michael P. Redbourn
World Film Services
|Tigon British Film Productions (UK)
Columbia Pictures (US)
The Creeping Flesh is a 1973 British horror film directed by Freddie Francis, written by Peter Spenceley, and starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Lorna Heilbron.
Prof. Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing), a Victorian era scientist, is shown meeting a young doctor in what appears to be a laboratory. He excitedly tells the doctor that he needs help because he has discovered a form of evil that is real, a living being, and that he has unwittingly unleashed the evil thousands of years too soon. He then recounts how his discovery was made.
In a flashback, Hildern recounts his return in 1894 from an expedition to New Guinea where he discovered an abnormally large humanoid skeleton. Paradoxically, the skeleton is far older than previously recovered specimens, but also much more advanced. Hildern hopes the discovery will earn him the prestigious Richter Prize. He has little time to rejoice before receiving word that his wife, institutionalised for years, has finally died. He learns this from his half-brother James Hildern (Christopher Lee), who runs the asylum where Hildern's wife had been held in secret. While visiting the asylum, James tells his brother that he made a psychiatric study of Hildern's wife and plans to publish the findings in the hope of winning the Richter Prize. He also tells Hildern that he will no longer subsidise Hildern's expeditions.
Returning home and to the skeleton, and with a new urgency to complete his research, Hildern discovers that the skeleton grows flesh when exposed to water. Hildern reviews myths of ancient peoples of the region where the skeleton was discovered, which tell of evil giants who will be roused by rain. Hildern theorises that the skeleton is the remains of one of those evil beings, and would not have been discovered before for thousands of years of erosion revealed its resting place. By that time, the science of the region's inhabitants would have grown sophisticated enough to deal with the evil. Hildern draws a further conclusion - if evil can live as an organism, then it can be biologically contained and eradicated like a disease. Using cells formed around the skeleton's fleshy finger - which Hildern removes - he develops what he believes to be a serum against evil. Testing the serum on a monkey, Hildern notes positive results.
Meanwhile, Hildern's daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron) learns of her mother's death. Having been told for years that her mother was dead, Penelope reacts with shock when learning that her mother had been alive and institutionalised all that time. Worried that Penelope's emotional outburst may be a sign that she has inherited her mother's insanity, Hildern injects her with the serum.
The next day Hildern is shocked to see that the monkey has gone berserk, having gained the strength to escape from its cage and wreak havoc in the lab. Penelope has also left the house and made her way to the city, where she assaults several men at a tavern and then, when chased by the other patrons, murders another man at a warehouse. Because the dead man was himself an escapee from James Hildern's asylum, James has sent men to the city. There they apprehend Penelope and bring her to the asylum, where a blood test reveals the serum. James realises that his brother has experimented on Penelope, which could unleash a scandal should it become known to others. Given that James's experiments have stalled - threatening his own chances of winning the Richter Prize - James decides to steal his brother's research, including the skeleton.
James's thief carries the skeleton out of the lab and unwittingly exposes it to rain. When the carriage taking the skeleton overturns, the skeleton - now coming alive - escapes. Hildern tries to follow the carriage, but turns back when he sees an ominous cloaked figure nearby. Returning home, Hildern finds that the skeleton's fleshy finger has begun to move. Terrified, Hildern throws the finger into the fire. Soon, the creature, now encased in flesh but otherwise hollow, returns to Hildern's house and removes his finger, but spares his life.
Hildern finishes his account and the story returns to the lab seen at the beginning of the film, Hildern's lab is revealed to be a cell in his "brother's" asylum, and Hildern an apparent inmate there. The visiting physician consults with James, who scoffs at Hildern's claim to be related to James at all, or that Penelope - who is also being kept at the asylum, having gone completely insane - is Hildern's daughter. James finds it normal for his patients to want to identify with him, given that he is clearly an authority figure. James tells the doctor that the man claiming to be his brother had arrived there about the time that James won the Richter Prize. The camera returns to Hildern's cell, which no longer resembles a laboratory. A distraught Hildern pleads for someone to help him. The final shot is of Hildern's left hand, which is now missing a finger matching the one that he had removed from the skeleton.
It is left for the viewer to decide if Hildern's account was true or is merely the delusion of a madman.
Freddie Francis replaced Don Sharp as director at the last minute. Francis would later say, "Peter Cushing was excellent in it, as he always is. [... He] seemed to convince everybody it was real. Even I [...] listened to Peter talking all this rubbish on the screen, and I think 'that must be true'. [...] Peter is the greatest guy at speaking unbelievable dialogue and making you believe it."
Filming took place in Surrey, at Shepperton Studios and Thorpe House. Craze (1973) also was shot at Thorpe House.
The film premiered in the UK and US on 1 January 1973.
The Creeping Flesh has received both praise and criticism. The film was directed by Francis, starred two icons of British horror, Lee and Cushing, and was made late in the cycle of British Gothic horror features that lasted from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. Its style is similar to that of many releases from Hammer Film Productions, but it has not achieved anything like the fame of Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an 83% approval rating, with an average rating of 6/10, based on reviews from 6 critics.
Recent reviews have inferred, possibly spuriously, social implications from the story. Gary Susman, writing for Time, concludes that "you can read the whole thing as a satire, on Victorian sexual expression, outdated science, and imperialism, but it's easier just to sit back and scream at the elegant creepiness of Cushing and Lee or the awful spectacle of that wriggling finger." In his review for the online film journal Offscreen, Donato Totaro opines: "Although The Creeping Flesh is unevenly paced in moments and contains a sometimes maligned plot, a close analysis reveals a film marked by an interesting use of parallel montage, subtle thematic meaning imparted in the mise en scène, and a possible social message submerged within the slightly ludicrous apocalyptic scenario, dealing with the suppression of women in Victorian England (it would be too much of a stretch to read this as feminist)."
The Creeping Flesh was released on DVD in the UK by DD Home Entertainment on 19 May 2004. However, it was withdrawn shortly after, due to a dispute over rights.
On 4 April 2017, in the US, Mill Creek Entertainment released the film, along with The Brotherhood of Satan (1971) and Torture Garden (1967), in a Blu-ray set titled Psycho Circus.