The Creeping Flesh looks superficially like a fairly typical Hammer gothic horror flick, and mostly it is, although in fact it was made by Tigon Pictures rather than Hammer. With Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing heading the cast and Freddie Francis directing this is a solid effort with a few interesting features that make it worth seeking out.
Peter Cushing was always at his best playing mad scientists, and Professor Emmanuel Hildern is certainly eccentric if perhaps not actually mad. He’s a much more kindly character than Cushing’s Dr Frankenstein from the Hammer Frankenstein films, and that is in some ways the professor’s downfall. He really wants to do good. He is obsessed with the idea of evil as a disease, a disease than can be cured. It might even be possible to inoculate people against evil. His obsession stems from personal tragedy. His wife, a music hall star, has been confined to an asylum for the criminally insane for many years. he is terrified that the madness might be passed on to his daughter Penelope.
The asylum is run by his half-brother, James Hildern (Christopher Lee). James is also involved in scientific investigations into the nature of madness. He has always been somewhat in his older brother’s shadow professionally but Emmanuel has become increasingly isolated from the scientific community (apart from his ideas on evil he also holds eccentric opinions on human evolution). Emmanuel’s star is fading while James’s is rising.
Emmanuel has brought back a skeleton from an expedition to New Guinea, a skeleton he believes will restore his standing in the word of science. This skeleton seems to have some very unusual properties - when exposed to water it grows new flesh. Emmanuel thinks New Guinea folklore may hold the key to this mystery, and that the skeleton is a representative of pure evil. As such the blood (for it grows blood vessels as well as flesh) could be used to manufacture a vaccine against evil.
Of course things go horribly wrong. Emmanuel receives word that his wife has finally died. His daughter believed that her mother died many years earlier and when she discovers the truth she does not take it well. Emmanuel has tried, perhaps too hard, to shelter her from the world. Now he will pay the price for his mistake.
Emmanuel Hildern is not an evil mad scientist but his own obsessions have clouded his judgment very badly, and his isolation from the scientific mainstream has made him increasingly prone to idiosyncratic and even deluded ideas. Cushing is very much the star and he gives an impressive and rather subtly nuanced performance.
Christopher Lee as James is almost as interesting. If personal tragedy and scientific neglect have distorted Emmanuel’s character then ambition and jealousy of his more famous elder brother has also distorted James’ mind. He dreams of winning a major scientific prize and he is prepared to adopt very unethical methods in order to do so. He’s a delightfully smarmy and sinister villain and Lee has a great time with the role.
Lorna Heilbron is superb as Penelope, the daughter who becomes an unwitting victim of her father’s unwise experiments. Her descent into madness is quite chilling.
Freddie Francis was always a reliable enough horror director and on rare occasions when a story really engaged his interest he could be quite inspired. He has some very good moments in this production. He was of course more famous as a cinematographer than as a director and this background allows him to pull off a couple of good visual set-pieces, especially the flashback sequence of Emmanuel’s wife’s mental breakdown. Francis’s use of distorted images is both visually impressive and a very economical and effective way of filling in the backstory.
By the standards of 1973 it’s rather tame - no nudity, very little gore.
All in all it’s a pretty decent gothic horror effort, and certainly worth getting hold of if you’re a fan of Cushing and Lee.
Columbia Tristar’s DVD is a satisfactory widescreen release although some extras would have been nice.