The Creeping Flesh

The evil makes me SO itchy!

As a kid I had a magazine called Vincent Price’s Silver Screen Horror.  It was a cheap one-off ‘zine printed on newsprint.   The cover was a garage band flier quality hodgepodge of images from classic monster movies set against a nauseating yellow background.  I loved that magazine with an attachment bordering on lunacy.  For a year (which is a very long time for a small child)  I carried that magazine with everywhere I went. Any time I had a free moment I would open it up and carefully study the black and white pictures within and imagine stories to go with the horrors captured on the pages.

One of these silver screen nightmares was a photo of the monster from The Creeping Flesh (1973), a classic film now, but a contemporary picture  when the magazine was published.  The small photo showed a wide skull-like face, the texture of cauliflower with great hollow eye sockets, framed by a black cowl.  An ephemeral voice called to me. “Watch The Creeping Flesh, little boy.   Watch it and all your worst nightmares will come true.”  It took a few decades, but I finally    accepted the invitation.

Staring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee with direction by horror regular and award winning lensman Freddie Francis, The Creeping Flesh is so Hammery that you could drive a nail into a plank of wood with it.   It’s a Hammer film without the Hammer studio. It’s Hammery, not only because it features two of Hammer’s regular stars, but because it feel like a Hammer picture with its late Victorian setting, gaudy color and lurid sexual overtones.

Dr. Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing) opens the movie with a paintbrush in his hand daubing a little red on a most macabre and fantastic paining.   In the center is a skeletal being having a bite of something I fancy is a heart dripping with gore.  Around the snacking beastie are nightmarish images that swirl into one another.    The painting is seriously cool.  Apparently the filmmakers thought so too because it serves as the backdrop for the opening titles.

After the credits, Emmanuel Hildern, puts down the brush; we see that we’re in a spartan laboratory with bare white walls.  Interviewing a new assistant, Hildern claims to have found a biological origin for evil, which has escaped his laboratory and threatens to engulf the world.  The young man looks skeptical, so Hildern explains which dissolves the film into a flashback scene.

We pick up the story with Hildern returning to his rural manor after several years of tromping around South America looking for something that will confirm his hypothesis that evil is a physical rather than spiritual malady.   We learn that while he was away, his family’s well-being has slid into the trash bin.  Hildern left his teenage daughter to run the estate and his wife in a madhouse.  Teenage girls, no matter how responsible, are not known for there managerial skills, but Penelope (Lorna Heilbron) has made the best of it.  Hildern’s wife, in his absence, died in the sanitarium ran by his bad natured half-brother, James Hildern (Christopher Lee).

Now, you’d think that Emmanuel Hildern would be anxious to see his daughter and maybe take the reins of the family’s finances, but no; he’s more interested in the box he’s brought back to England — a box containing a giant evil looking skeleton.  It’s not so much that he has a skeleton fetish as much as it is that he thinks the skeleton is the key to solving the problem of evil.

Emmanuel Hildern is the embodiment of Victorian hypocrisy; his drive to cure evil stemming less from altruism than from guilt.   Though sexually repressed and moralistic, Emmanuel Hildern fell in love with and married the tartiest tart in tart town.  They say “the heart wants what the heart wants” and apparently so does the vagina.  He takes the Tart for a wife; she opens her tunnel of love for any and all weary travelers.  Or so we are led to believe.

Hildern’s missus was a dance hall star and obviously a bit of a Victorian party girl; but was she really the Snookie of Olde London Towne?  Are we just seeing her through the filter of Hildern’s fearful and jealous suspicions?  Or was she just a liberated woman out of her time? I dunno.  We have only Hildern’s unreliable  recollections to go on.  Either way, his wife was clearly too strong of a personality for the old boy to live with so he had her committed to his half-brother James’ insane asylum.

Emmanuel Hildern blames the death and madness of his wife not on his own immature sexuality and jealousy, but rather on evil itself.  Hildern fears that the fate of his wife will befall his daughter, leading him to do some pretty rash things.

The Creeping Flesh is an odd film. There is really no hero.  Emmanuel Hildern is as weak as dishwater, not so much driving events as lamely reacting to them.  He is craven.   James Hildern is even worse: resentful, egotistical and cruel, we like him even less that his half-brother.  I didn’t find the characters compelling.

So what’s left?  We have a monster movie that gets tangled up in the fear driven machinations of one Hildern and in the ego driven machinations of the other Hildern, becoming only a monster movie again at the end.  The middle of the film drifts, floating like a log in the current, lacking  purposeful momentum.

In the final act, The Creeping Flesh rouses itself and gets interesting again.  The beastie finally appears, wreaking havoc and revenge.   Eventually we come to the end, where we find a nice little plot twist.

In sum: The monster in The Creeping Flesh is okay.  The performances are all fine.  The failings are with the script, which can’t seem to figure out who and what the story is about, leaving the cast and crew to gamely carry on and make the best picture they can.

The Creeping Flesh, was released in 1973, the same year as The Exorcist and five years after Rosemary’s Baby, but it has the look and feel of a film that could have been made in 1963 or even earlier.  It is one of the last gothic horror films from an era that began fifteen years prior with Hammer’s release of The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, which if nothing else makes it worth watching.

Starring:
Christopher Lee
Peter Cushing
Lorna Heilbron
George Benson
Kenneth J. Warren

Director:
Freddie Francis

Writing credits
Peter Spenceley
Jonathan Rumbold

 

Two and a half out of five Vincents

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