The Creeping Flesh, 1973. 7/10

What a title! And Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing: ’70s British horror, a cursed skeleton, a Victorian gothic atmosphere, a monkey, scientists, a serial killer, and insanity skulking about in the family. If you need more it might just be here…a twist at the end too.

Lee is scientist/explorer Emmanuel Hildern, and Cushing is his half-brother James (he’s got a metaphoric skeleton in the closet in the form of dead asylum inmate/sister-in-law Marguerite). In supporting roles are Lorna Heilbron as Emmanuel’s daughter, Penelope, George Benson as Emmanuel’s assistant, Waterlow; asylum escapee Lenny is played by Kenneth J. Warren, Duncan Lamont is the Inspector.

As we might suspect, there’s a lot going on here: the skeleton that Emmanuel Hildern brings back from New Guinea not only threatens to take on a life of its own, it might serve a beneficial purpose as well. Allegedly containing (embodying?) the secret of evil, could it help find a cure for insanity?

First thing we see is a suitably macabre painting. It’s Emmanuel’s hobby, as we see the easel in a corner of his lab. There’s a flashback to three year’s previous, when he has just returned from New Guinea. Penelope and Waterlow welcome him home. And he has a mysterious specimen delivered in a handy coffin-sized crate.

“This will change everything!” He tells Waterlow, excitedly. Big deal, it’s just a rather large skeleton. They theorize about the age of the thing. Ever upbeat Hildern goes on that “this time, my discovery will bear fruit!” Anyway, at his brother’s salutary institution, Hildern’s Asylum for Mental Disorders, Emmanuel finds that his wife has died there.

They discuss how and what to tell Penelope. It’s obvious that there’s a competitive instinct between the brothers, James coming off as a jerk. Apparently, he’s been subsidizing Emmanuel’s “ridiculous” expeditions. Now the problem is that an inmate has escaped–red herring, or red alert?

Back home, Emmanuel checks in on the skeleton; we know something’s going to happen. Yes, washing it might be counterproductive–the old guy starts growing flesh on those bones. Somewhat aghast, Emmanuel chips off its half-rebuilt finger. Weirdly, not to be shown up by his brother, James is messing with a severed arm suspended in an aquarium.

Stupidly, James ventures into the asylum’s cells. He shoots an unhinged guy who has grabbed his keys. Meanwhile, cops are searching high and low for the escapee. Dude has found a place to hole up in (he needs to, as Lenny’s Khruschev look is uncomeradly).

Waterlow, not knowing of the skeleton’s affinity for water, makes a boo-boo. Back to the asylum, the Inspector is clued in about the identity of the missing guy. Now, transition to the skeleton shack, err, lab. For some reason, Penelope finds a way to get ahold of the house keys–to scope out mom’s old room?

Emmanuel relates the indigenous myth from New Guinea to explain what’s happened: a rebirth of a corpse, courtesy of the water/rain god. That means, through some layers of wishful thinking, that this skeleton holds the secret to…something. Actually, the myth posits a post-Edenic scenario. The original natives were giants, but by the god’s tears (shed for his fallen people), evil is made flesh in his descendants. It’s not so grim though, as this critter only gets exposed at the Earth’s surface every 3,000 years. Presumably, things are mellower for the natives in New Guinea just before that happens.

What Emmanuel has done, if effect, is speed up the cycle by 1,000 years; pretty dangerous obviously, but it presents an opportunity as well. Maybe he can ‘control’ evil by doing…who knows?…with this giant skeleton. What’s obvious to me is that dissecting the fleshy disembodied finger looks much like carving up one of grandpa’s cigars.

Some microscope action, mixing normal and reanimated blood, reveals…a bunch of red dots floating around. I don’t get Emmanuel’s next hypothesis–that evil is a disease for which there is a vaccine–the premise is interesting, but what’s that have to do with the mythic rain god’s evil effect on a skeleton?

Well, at any rate, he thinks that injecting juice (“serum”) from the old boy will inoculate a person from evil. Well, ok, what’s so hot about heaven, anyway? Meanwhile, Penelope is hallucinating that she hears herself as a child talking to her mom. The hint is: will she be the test case? She’s poking about in mom’s stuff…

Whilst, down in the lab, we got some serum going on. Why inject a monkey with it? Is the critter a serial killer? Upstairs, Penny finds the info on mom’s death. More microscope stuff…the cells are looking like gross spiders.

The piano is playing upstairs, what’s this? Oh, it’s Penelope, playing dress-up; she’s upset for dad’s not relating the horrid end that befell Marguerite. We then get his flashback of Marguerite dancing at the Folies Bergere. Apparently, she had both Emmanuel and another guy on the hook. Then, a lurid scene of her being dragged away to the asylum after her breakdown.

Time to check up on Lenny, the nut, whom we see saunter into a pub. After fondling a woman, he takes on the whole bar. I guess he wins, as the next thing we know, the proprietor is literally picking up the pieces while complaining to the cops.

“Come down here quickly!” pleads Waterlow. A similar smash-up has occurred in the lab. Some ways away, look who’s emerging from his lair in the East End (is Lenny Jack the Ripper?). The old boy’s obviously up to no good. And here’s Penelope, out on the town, slumming, it would seem. It’s clear that she’s due to cross paths with Lenny.

Who’s this picking up on her in a pub? The cad’s doing some Ripper-esque foreplay, and takes her ‘upstairs.’ (Why has she suddenly lost her marbles?) They struggle on the bed as he tries to rape her. But she gouges him with her nails so badly that he gives up. She seems determined to continue flirting with just any guy there.

Maybe channeling mom (and in mom’s dress) she goes into a sort of flamenco dance. But the guy who grabs her gets his–by way of a broken bottle to the neck. She flees into the dark streets…Then ducks into a warehouse. It’s only a matter of time before the pursuing mob, reinforced by police, will break in.

Guess who appears as her savior? Lenny, of course. Weirdly, she attempts a distraction by clubbing Lenny, who obliges by falling out a window. Dumb move–she’s easily captured. Plausibly, she’s avenging how her mother was mistreated by men by–mistreating men. At the institute, a blood sample from Penelope is of interest (James has no idea that it’s her’s). Obviously, she’s had the serum.

Sure enough, her blood has the weird cells, which he’s seen at his brother’s lab. Looks like they have someone to experiment on; otherwise, why would James bring her home? Aha! Finally we see a note that indeed Penelope was “inoculated.” Under the heading of “Causes of Insanity.” James confides in Waterlaw that he’s going to swipe the nefarious skeleton. Remember that slab in the lab?

Waterlaw gets his comeuppance for nosing in on the bone thief by getting killed. Who’s side is he on? James told him what he was going to do, and he didn’t bat an eye; so why is he now surprised at the goings-on? Upstairs Penelope is freaking again. The thief soaks the skeleton in a handy pool, to jump-start it, so to say.

Knowing what’s happened under his nose, Emmanuel goes in search of the carriage with its ghastly passenger. Adding to the drama, there’s a thunderstorm. Inevitably, the carriage crashes, trapping the coachman underneath. Now, rising quicker than lightning, the skeleton emerges, embodied. A chilling sight for Emmanuel. James comes back to the scene of the accident.

Aware that the whole experiment has gone kaflooey, Emmanuel hastens home and burns the severed finger. Penelope rises from bed, only to strangle the servant who’s fallen asleep by her bedside. Huge shadow of the creature on the outside of Emmanuel’s place. Guess who lets it in? It’s not after Penelope, but Emmanuel.

More shadowy creature action… he’s coming up the stairs just now. We get a look: wow, now that’s a creature! Never seen one like that before–kind of a cadaverous alien face. “This creature walks upon the earth!”

Flashback to the opening scene. Now we see why Emmanuel’s got time to paint: he’s in the Institution! A “hopeless case.” Missing a finger as well. Next door is another of his lot, Penelope (well, we knew she wasn’t doing so hot). The end.

The last forty minutes (out of 132m. overall) of The Creeping Flesh is great. Scary, atmospheric, suspenseful. The ending twist worked excellently. But the lead-up to all the mayhem takes too long (ok, not the 3,000 year wait between the rain god’s interventions). Just think how much more exciting it would be to have the creature on the loose earlier?

That begs the question of the overly-elaborate plot. For one thing, Lenny serves no purpose; even his one long scene in the main plot only succeeds in his elimination. I’m not saying that a Jack the Ripper subplot is a bad idea, but it ought to have a point.

More significantly, Cushing’s role competes with Lee’s when both should complement each other. They only tie together because of Penelope, but her role isn’t so well-scripted either. She’s already a bit unhinged by her mother’s fate, and even more so by the deception involved. It’s a bit much to assume that her father would have no qualms about using her as a guinea pig.

James has been set up very convincingly as the bad guy, Emmanuel might be be misguided, but he definitely seems to care for his daughter. Why not use one of James’s patients (Lenny?) For the serum’s test subject? Then his mayhem would fit into the creature aspect of the plot instead of distract from it.

Back to that evil dude: how did Emmanuel expect to realize anything positive from playing with fire? Again, if James had been the one to bring the skeleton home, then harnessing the power of evil would fit his personality. But without some experiment having a benign result, how can Emmanuel claim that his experiments have been a “success”?

Let’s talk about the creature–somewhat like the alien in The Thing, or the fossilized alien in Horror Express, this rain god creature is out to get us. In fact, thanks tongue myth it’s evil incarnate. But the other two human-like monsters are brooding, skulking, attacking, or just generally chewing up the scenery throughout their plots. Here’s a very creepy thing (both other monsters are fittingly horrifying too), but, it bears repeating, that he’s basically side-lined for the middle part of the movie.

The setting and atmosphere are spot-on Victorian. As I point out in movies of this type, there’s something unique about the era: on the cusp between tradition and science–where for a little while, it seemed that superstition and modernism reinforced each other in the speculative fiction of the day.

The Creeping Flesh is quite a bit more than the sum of its parts; it’s entertaining and worth watching, but promises more than it delivers. 7/10

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