Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Creeping Flesh (1973)

Country: UK

The patchy and uneven directorial career of Freddie Francis sits in stark contrast to his career as a cinematographer. Francis the director worked almost exclusively in the horror genre and constantly struggled to stretch his poverty row budgets too accommodate typically overambitious projects. Nevertheless Francis still managed to infuse his horror projects with visual panache and stylistic energy. Although Francis helmed a number of popular British horror films, it was extremely rare that he would push the boundaries of the genre. In my view he managed this on just two occasions. The brilliant and often surreal The Skull (1965) showed evidence of a purely cinematic form of storytelling to which Francis was well suited, and Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly (1970) stands out in Francis’ filmography for its peculiar eccentricities and weird offbeat tone. In 1973 Francis saw his nineteenth feature film released and there was a certain inevitability about him making a picture for Tigon. Tigon were known for a slightly off kilter approach to their horror productions, so it was something of a surprise that Francis was invited to direct The Creeping Flesh, which is easily Tigon’s most rigorous attempt to imitate Hammer’s brand of gothic horror.

The casting of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing is indication enough of Tigon’s intent, but the screenplay by Peter Spencely and Jonathan Rumbold does aim for something slightly original. Cushing plays Emmanuel Hildern a palaeontologist whose expedition in the far reaches of Papua New Guinea has resulted in the discovery of a very unusual skeleton. Hildern is convinced the skeleton is a missing link which will alter prevailing theories of evolution. Perhaps Hildern’s most shocking discovery however is that the skeleton has the ability to regenerate itself when the fossilised bones come into contact with water. After some experimentation Hildern and his assistant Waterlow (George Benson) conclude that evil is a disease of the blood, and that the blood of the skeleton may hold the key to a vaccine. In opposition to the benevolent aims of Emmanuel is the callous opportunism of his half brother James (Christopher Lee) who runs the local asylum and whose theories of evil and insanity are explored through an examination of the human brain. James prefers electro-shock therapy, and if that doesn’t work he isn’t above shooting escapee inmates in the back. The opposition of theoretical positions forms the foundation of the film, and the characterisations of James and Emmanuel are likewise in opposition. Emmanuel ultimately wishes to help mankind, and James is merely after personal gain and glory.

Emmanuel has a personal reason for challenging the existence of evil. His wife, a woman of easy virtue and a cabaret performer, was institutionalised on his behest, and Emmanuel is determined that the same sluttish evil should not contaminate his daughter Penelope (Lorna Hellbron). This has inevitably meant a life of lies, control, and stiff patriarchal rule. Emmanuel only has time for his scientific work, even if it does run amok due to his obssession with making sure his daughter leads a life of purity. The scientist and bastion of age of enlightenment reason is also an unhealthy controlling force, one which opposes other forms of cultural expression such as romance novels, theatre, and musical performance. When Penelope goes on her killing spree in the taverns of London’s East End it is a much needed act of rebellion, that the evil cells are coursing through her bloodstream seems like an irrelevancy. The sequences in the East End are handled very well and gives the film some much needed space. Up to this point the two principal locations; Emmanuel’s rambling old house, and the asylum, had offered rather static tableaux. But these are both impressive gothic locations that Francis lights in an eerie and atmospheric manner.

The Creeping Flesh has some important failings which prevent it from standing as a truly great example of gothic horror. It has a plot which is too ambitious, and a series of muddled sub-plots and incidental details which add more confusion. The entire story is told in the form of a flashback, and there are flashbacks within this flashback. The result is an unwieldy story that is unable to gel. The inevitable full body regeneration of the fossilised skeleton is handled well though, and Francis even indulges us with a point of view shot reminiscent of the subjective shots in The Skull. The principal themes of madness, ambition, greed, deceit, and vanity make this a very human tale, and the opposition between palaeontology and psychology is made all the more intriguing by its extension to the principal characters. Naturally Cushing and Lee are on fine form, and although Cushing has the lions share of the screen time Lee makes quite an impression as the more unscrupulous sibling. The Creeping Flesh has an intriguing premise supported by some wonderful images and fine performances, but is never quite able to entangle itself from a messy plot.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Every time i watch this film i realise i`ve just witnessed a masterpiece.

  2. I agree 100% in everything you have said here, Shaun. I haven't seen the film in a long time and never did buy the DVD, but I recall the plot being incredibly original and a fascinating template for a horror picture, it just doesn't all come together in a completely engrossing package even with the participation of both Cushing and Lee.

  3. Yes I think ultimately the over-ambitiousness of the screenplay was costly to this film. It is highly original, but also has to contend with satisfying the tropes of the gothic horror film. In respect to the directorial career of Freddie Francis this has up to be up there with the best of his work.

  4. I think 'masterpiece' is stretching it a little Mr. Anonymous, but its certainly a disctinctive and entertaining yarn.

  5. Its interesting that Cushing and Lee made this film in February and March of 1972 literally just a few weeks after returning to England after having spent November and December of `71 in Madrid (with the stunning Silvia Tortosa...WOW...WOW...WOW) filming another one of my all-time cult favorites "Horror Express", i often watch them both on the same evening and imagine i`m watching them in a double feature in a cinema circa late `72, its always a truly magical experience. "Horror Express" and "The Creeping Flesh" are 2 of the greatest cult classics of all-time.


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