Tuesday, 22 October 2019
October Horrors # 11:
The Creeping Flesh
(Freddie Francis, 1973)
Although I can’t 100% confirm that this is an accurate memory, I seem to recall that, long ago in the distant past, my initial viewing of a VHS copy of ‘The Creeping Flesh’ might well have marked the point at which my interest in old British horror films first surpassed the level of idle, time-killing curiosity, prompting me to think, “my god, these things are amazing – I think I should probably try to watch as many of them as possible”.
Revisiting the film all these years later, it’s easy to see why my response was so favourable – in a profound sense, it really does the business. Whereas contemporary productions such as Amicus’s And Now The Screaming Starts and Don Sharp’s ‘Dark Places’ appeared to show the British gothic horror tradition on its last legs, exhaustedly dragging itself toward its own grave, ‘The Creeping Flesh’ by contrast is an exuberant, imaginative and confidently realised production, seemingly inheriting a sense of joie de vivre (and, it must be said, a few plot details) from Cushing & Lee’s previous assignment, the equally wonderful ‘Horror Express’.
Although this co-production between Tigon and the utilitarian-sounding World Film Services may not have been planned as an epitaph for this particular strain of British cinema, it was certainly amongst the last batch of such titles to enjoy widespread distribution, and in retrospect, it can’t help but feel like an attempt to give the classical approach to the genre the all-guns-blazing send-off it deserved. (1)
Whilst the film makes a point of evoking as many of the tropes that had helped define the legacy of the preceding fifteen years as possible though, imbuing proceedings with a warm feeling of tried-and-tested familiarity in the process, it also engages intelligently with the more psychological / visceral approach which was already beginning to twist the genre into weird new shapes as budgets plummeted and declining audiences began to demand harder-edged exploitation content (perhaps taking a few notes from Hammer’s envelope-pushing ‘Hands of the Ripper’ (’71) and ‘Demons of the Mind’ (’72)) – a cake-having / cake-eating combo, which, against all the odds, works brilliantly.
An introductory framing narrative features an infirm and unhinged looking Peter Cushing in his lab, ranting about the nature of good and evil and the grave responsibility he holds for saving humanity from a plague of darkness, and so on. As he begins relating his sorry tale to a younger doctor who has apparently turned up to assist him, we move into ‘flashback’ mode as the story proper begins with a scenario akin to what might have happened had Cushing’s character from ‘Horror Express’ managed to return home without incident, and with his crated up specimen still intact.
Upon arrival at his isolated country home, Dr Emmanuel Hildern (for such is Cushing’s character name) is immediately reacquainted with his devoted daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), whom he has left alone at the house during his costly and arduous expedition to the wilds of New Guinea. Naturally enough, Penelope declares her wish to catch up with her beloved father over tea and toast, but Dr Hildern has other priorities, immediately retreating to his laboratory to unpack his big crate.
Excitedly filling his assistant (George Benson) in on the results of his trip, Hildern reveals his prize discovery – a gnarly-looking, giant sized skeleton of some ancient, previously unknown species of hominid, whose very existence throws conventional theories of human evolution into disarray!
Consulting his surprisingly extensive library of work on “the spiritual beliefs of the New Guinea primitives”, Dr Hildern is subsequently inspired to make some even more earth-shattering claims concerning the veracity of his discovery, including the suggestion that it in fact belongs to an ancient race of “evil giants” who once went to war against the people of the islands – and his speculations become even more far-fetched after an attempt to clean the skeleton reveals that the dead bones are capable of actually regrowing their living flesh when exposed to water.
Soon thereafter, Hildern makes the astounding declaration that the blood samples he has taken from this freshly-grown flesh actually contain the essence of pure evil, determining that he and his assistant must get straight to work preparing a prototype vaccine from it, which I suppose in theory should function to rid mankind of all its negative impulses?! (Whoa, back up there Doc, one thing at a time please...)
Whilst begrudgingly taking a break to partake in that aforementioned familial breakfast meanwhile, Dr Hildern gets stuck into his years’ worth of unanswered correspondence, and swiftly learns that his wife, who had been committed to an asylum many years previously, has passed away during his absence. Significantly, it transpires that he had lied to Penelope about her mother’s fate, telling her that she had died whilst she was still a child – so now of course, he must stick to his story and hide his grief from his daughter.
Even more awkwardly for Dr Hildern, the proprietor of his friendly local asylum is none other than his half-brother James, played by Christopher Lee (I suppose the “half” has been appended to the script to account for their obvious lack of family resemblance). Another scientist of questionable propriety, this younger Dr Hildern is soon revealed to be an ice-cold authoritarian who manages his mental hospital with an approach to patient well-being seemingly inspired by Torquemada, whilst spending his spare time engaging in his own Frankensteinian experiments (you know, hand-crank generated electrical charges applied to severed arms in tanks of formaldehyde – all that kind of good stuff).
Clearly there is no love lost between the brothers. Apparently suffering from a severe case of sibling rivalry, James lords his superior wealth and public standing over the grief-stricken and destitute Emmanuel, announcing straight off the bat that he will refuse to subsidise any of his brother’s foolish expeditions, and furthermore declaring that he intends to go head-to-head against Emmanuel to win the much-coveted Richter Prize!
As you’d rather imagine, Emmanuel’s frantic and rather sloppy attempts to knock up a vaccine against Original Sin, Penelope’s calamitous discovery of the truth about her mother (it turns out she was a former Parisian night club performer who allegedly succumbed to a form of hereditary insanity!) and James’s attempts at scientific espionage add up to a whole heap of trouble for all concerned -- especially when you factor in an escaped lunatic rampaging around the place and a big, gnarly skeleton which threatens to turn into an atavistic remnant of a lost race of pre-human destroyers as soon as it’s left out in the rain.
And, as life in the Hildern house becomes ever more dysfunctional, the older Dr Hildern’s extremely bad decision to test out his vaccine on his beloved daughter (I mean, it’s only injecting a solution made from the blood of an ancient evil giant into the blood-stream of an emotionally unstable teenage girl…. what could possibly go wrong?) is basically the last straw that tips the whole thing into complete chaos.
With Cushing and Lee as rival mad scientists, a hot-house gothic house melodrama with overtones of sexual repression and parental abandonment, an ancient, atavistic supernatural menace and a lurid Victorian milieu of hellish asylums, riotous taverns and buxom wenches, ‘The Creeping Flesh’ delivers everything a gothic horror fan could possibly wish for, but, rather than merely coming across as a mega-mix of Brit horror clichés, Peter Spenceley & Jonathan Rumbold’s admirably ambitious screenplay actually succeeds in incorporating all this stuff into an example of that rarest and most valuable of horror movie virtues – a good story, well told.(2)
Critics of the film have tended to draw attention to the unlikelihood of Dr Hildern’s extraordinary leap of logic in determining that he has extracted ‘the essence of pure evil’ from his pet skeleton, and have taken a dim view of the film’s apparent endorsement of the grimly puritanical, Manichean worldview this implies – especially once the injection of the botched ‘evil’ vaccine into Penelope appears to provide the catalyst for her catastrophic sexual awakening. Rarely, it seems, has a horror movie’s “sex = evil = death” message been so explicitly spelled out, and even given scientific credence, no less.
What is easy to overlook on first viewing however is that what we are seeing here is the story as recounted in flashback by Dr Hildern himself – an unreliable narrator to say the least. Whilst the supernatural nature of the creature he has unearthed remains unquestioned, we are never actually given any verifiable proof that the Doctor’s babbling about ancient mythology and good and evil has any basis in fact. Indeed, Spenceley & Rumbold’s script subtly undermines the doctor’s reactionary assumptions at every turn, clearly implying a far more mundane, psychological explanation for the tragedies which plague his family life.
Although Dr Hildern is a genial, sympathetic figure when we first meet him, as the film goes on it becomes increasingly clear that his problems run far deeper than mere bumbling absent-mindedness and nutty-professor style eccentricity. Beyond all of the mad science and monster movie hi-jinks which result from his sloppy professional practice, the clear implication here is that the malady which sends Penelope out on the town in a scarlet dress is the exact same one which drove her mother to the asylum -- and that Emmanuel himself is chiefly responsible for it, irrespective of any botched vaccine injections and vague talk of hereditary insanity.
Through his insistence that his wife and daughter remain closeted from the outside world, and through his failure to understand their needs or to return their affection, Emmanuel has inadvertently destroyed the lives of the two women he loves, and his transition from a lovable bumbler to a tragic, ruined lost soul is, of course, brilliantly realised by Cushing, adding yet another variation to the gallery of morally tormented patriarchs he had previously essayed in films as varied as The Flesh & The Fiends, ‘Cash on Demand’ and The Gorgon. Working here just a few months after his return to active service following the devastating loss of his wife, it is spiriting to see him firing on all cylinders, bringing energy, commitment and emotional nuance to a demanding lead role.
Lee, for his part, falls back on his tried and tested ‘archly superior, cold-hearted cad’ routine, and I’m sure we all know how great he was at doing that. I’m not sure what his characteristically strident thoughts on this particular production may have been, but he certainly seems to be enjoying the opportunity to indulge in a slightly more refined form of full spectrum villainy than his horror roles usually allowed for.
Meanwhile, the supporting cast is excellent too, with Heilbron (who went on of course to work with Jose Larraz on ‘Symptoms’ the following year) on fine, hysterical form as Penelope, and some great one-scene-wonder bits from a few old favourites too; Michael Ripper as one of the porters who carries Cushing’s crate into the house, Harry Locke improvising wildly as the pub landlord, and Duncan Lamont as a drawling Scottish police inspector. There’s even an extended cameo from Jenny Runacre as Cushing’s late wife during some flashback-within-a-flashback scenes of Parisian debauchery.
(The only disappointment in fact is that the hulking, mute asylum escapee is inexplicably NOT played by Milton Reid. Perhaps he was on his holidays at the time? [Cue mental image of Milton relaxing on a sun-lounger drinking a cocktail with an umbrella in it, as Hawaiian music plays.] Oh well, you can’t have everything I suppose.)
Freddie Francis was always rather uneven in his work as a horror director, but he certainly had his moments, and ‘The Creeping Flesh’ is undoubtedly one of them. In particular, he was always a director who seemed to have a good feel for production design, and the staging, props and set dressing here are indeed all top notch. I don’t know where ‘The Creeping Flesh’ actually sat in budgetary terms, but it certainly looks like one of the more extravagantly realised British horrors of its era, with location shooting taking place both around Thorpe House in Surrey and the London Docklands, whilst the standing sets used for the urban exteriors (identified as such by the film’s entry on the Reel Streets website) are so elaborate that I actually mistook them for genuine streets given a period make-over.
Meanwhile, the special effects used to realise the monster – in both its skeletal and fleshy form - are satisfyingly icky and menacing, especially during the film’s climactic nocturnal coach crash – a genuinely thrilling, beautifully evocative sequence featuring great, blue-tinted nocturnal photography, lashing rain, thunder crash editing and a sense of all-consuming chaos as the newly reconstituted revenant makes its getaway in a sutiably menacing hooded cape.
And, as to the ending, well – oh my gosh, it’s so good. The hooded creature banging at the doctor’s door with its clammy paw is just so ‘Weird Tales’, and the vengeful, sanity-wrecking price it eventually exacts from him is so E.C. Comics – just absolute classic stuff (even if Francis does ill-advisedly revive his “camera inside the skull” gimmick from 1965’s ‘The Skull’ to considerably lessened effect).
As you will have gathered, I like ‘The Creeping Flesh’ rather a lot. For some reason, it seems to have remained a fairly under-rated and infrequently discussed entry in the British gothic cycle over the years, but it really is one of the very best, managing to embody all of the arcane joys which this form of filmmaking represents for its fans, whilst at the same time presenting a solid, serious and exciting tale, compelling enough in its own right to make a perfect ‘gateway drug’ for any British horror neophytes who stumble across it. If for some reason you’ve overlooked it until now, please do make the effort to track it down - you’ll be in for a treat.
Check out this amazing poster artwork from Italy (title translation: “The Terror From The Rain”(?)), West Germany (“At Night, The Skeleton Awakens”), and Belgium (more or less direct translations of the English title in French and Dutch).
(1)An eclectic production outfit to say the least, World Film Services appear to have had a hand in everything from Peter Watkins’ ‘Privilege’ (1967) and Joseph Losey’s ‘Boom!’ and ‘Secret Ceremony’ (both ’68) to the sub-Amicus portmanteau effort ‘Tales That Witness Madness’ (1973), the inexplicable David Niven vampire comedy ‘Vampira’ (1974), and post-E.T. kid’s sci-fi movie ‘D.A.R.Y.L’ (1985).
(2)Given how accomplished their script for ‘The Creeping Flesh’ is, it is surprising to learn that neither Spenceley nor Rumbold had much of a background in the film industry, and nor did they go on to much recognisable success. Spencely worked intermittently as an assistant editor in the UK, whilst Rumbold next popped up in Greece in 1978, directing a film which no one ever seems to have seen, before occasionally contributing script work to a number of low key productions based out of Greece, Yugoslavia and Iceland.