A healthy amount of fear is a good thing. It can help keep one out of dangerous situations and keep one focused. Unreasonable fear, on the other hand, can be a destructive force in one’s life. In director Freddie Francis’ The Creeping Flesh (1973), a man’s excessive fear leads to reckless actions and eventually tragic consequences. A Victorian scientist is investigating a prehistoric skeleton when he discovers a biological basis for evil. To protect his daughter from what he feels may be hereditary madness, he inoculates her with a serum derived from the ancient specimen, with disastrous results. While there is a monster in The Creeping Flesh, the biggest threat actually is the spectre of mental illness and lengths to which the characters will go so as to escape it. The film has a great atmosphere, doing a nice job of recreating Victorian England. The cast and crew are top-notch, which helps sell the horror in this mostly character-driven piece.
It is 1893, and Professor Emmanuel Hildern (horror legend Peter Cushing) has just returned to his English country home from an anthropological dig. He has brought back with him a skeleton that predates the Neanderthals but appears to be far more advanced. Ancient texts hint that this may be a creature of ancient evil. While cleaning the skeleton’s hand with water, he is surprised to find this triggers flesh to grow on the hand. Isolating the cells, Emmanuel discovers what looks to be a biological basis for evil. He is so enthralled with studying the specimen in his home laboratory that he does not notice that the household staff is greatly reduced. Eventually, upon speaking with his daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), who lives with him, he finds out that she has had to let go most of the staff, as they are running out of funds. This convinces Emmanuel that it is even more important for him to study the skeleton so he can write a paper about it to win the Richter Prize, thereby ensuring his and his daughter’s financial security. Upon reviewing mail that has arrived in his absence, he finds a letter from his brother James (Cushing’s many-time co-star and cinematic foil, Christopher Lee). James runs the local mental institution, where Emmanuel’s wife has been committed for over a decade, a fact Emmanuel has kept from Penelope, allowing her to believe since she was young that her mother has been dead. The letter informs him that his wife indeed has passed away in his absence. The brothers are not on the best of terms, and when Emmanuel goes to talk with James, James informs him that he too is writing a paper for the Richter Prize. A human test of the anti-evil serum would assure his victory over James, and this, coupled with an intense fear that his daughter may succumb to the same mental illness as his now late wife experience, leads Emmanuel to commit a reckless act that has disastrous consequences for all involved.
Fear can be a helpful motivator, but too much fear can be destructive. This is the driving force behind the action and the terror in The Creeping Flesh. Emmanuel is deathly afraid of losing his daughter to mental illness, much as he lost her mother. This leads him to a whole string of bad decisions. He fosters his daughter’s belief that her mother died when she was a child since he is afraid that knowing her mother was in a mental institution would make it more likely for Penelope herself to have mental problems. When she finds out the truth, this is far worse. Likewise, this fear for Penelope’s mental health, when coupled with the fear that his brother James will “steal” the Richter Prize from him, leads Emmanuel to inject his daughter with the serum derived from the skeleton’s newly-grown flesh. Needless to say, this injection has far from the desired results. There is an actual monster in The Creeping Flesh, but it only appears late in the film, and most of the time, it is seen only as a large, hulking, cloaked figure, very similar to the hooded appearance of the Grim Reaper. Much as the Grim Reaper represents more the fear of death than it represents death itself, the hooded monster in The Creeping Flesh represents Emmanuel’s fear of mental illness.
While it is co-produced by Tigon Pictures and World Film Services, it is understandable that one might mistake The Creeping Flesh for one of the many period horror films put out Hammer Films or Amicus Productions. Like movies from those two production companies, it has a rich atmosphere, putting the audience in a believable recreation of Victorian England. The setting serves the story and themes well, as both anthropological and mental health sciences are still in their early years. This allows for some fun laboratory setups for both Emmanuel’s and James’ experiments. James’ laboratory, in particular, is the setting for some interesting sequences, including one involving excised organs and dismembered limbs moving while floating in solutions. These sequences have very little bearing on the story, aside from reinforcing his push for the Richter Prize, but they are fun to watch, nonetheless. On a more grounded level, the mental institution, with its bare cells and primitive therapeutic treatments, provides some more social-oriented horror with its exploration of mistreatment of the inmates.
Perhaps the resemblance to a Hammer or Amicus production is also due to fact that The Creeping Flesh has a cast and crew populated by veterans of those two studios. Director Freddie Fisher’s resume includes films from both Hammer, e.g. Nightmare (1964) and The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), and Amicus, e.g. Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and The Skull (1965). In fact, he directed the two male leads, genre favorites Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, in quite a few of the films he directed for those legendary studios. It is always a pleasure to see Cushing and Lee interacting on screen, and that is the case here, as well. Cushing’s portrayal of Emmanuel takes center stage here, with Lee’s James taking on a more peripheral role. James is there primarily to act as a foil to Emmanuel and to add motivation that pressures his brother to make his fateful decision to inoculate Penelope with the serum. Cushing really shines as the distraught and ill-fated professor. One can feel his character’s sense of loss at the death of his wife and the fear that he will lose his daughter as well. This is central to the success of the film, as one cares for Emmanuel and sympathizes with his sense of loss and despair, especially upon his realization that he has doomed his daughter instead of saving her. Perhaps one reason Emmanuel’s grief feels so authentic is that, in real life, filming The Creeping Flesh comes only two short years after the death of Cushing’s own beloved wife.
While it sells itself as a creature feature, most of the horror in The Creeping Flesh comes more from the spectre of mental illness than from the actual monster itself. The filmmakers recreate Victorian England nicely, giving the film an excellent period feel. Veteran horror director Freddie Fisher once again teams up with legends Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee to present an emotional and quite frightening character-driven period horror treat, with a cool menacing monster as a bonus.
The Creeping Flesh (4.5 / 5)