Peter Cushing is anthropologist Emmanuel Hildern, who arrives back at his home in late-Victorian England from an expedition in Papua New Guinea where he has found what appears to be the ancient skeleton of a humanoid giant. His daughter, Penelope, has been waiting anxiously for Hildern to return from his travels, unaware that the mother she believed long-dead has in fact only just died in a high security mental institute run by her father’s half-brother James (Christopher Lee).
The scene is set for a story about madness, as work-obsessed Emmanuel investigates the mystery of the skeleton and stumbles upon a possible cure for evil. This is prompted by the accidental discovery that, when brought into contact with water, the bones can regenerate organic matter around them – the creeping flesh of the somewhat melodramatic and not entirely accurate title – and provides Emmanuel and his assistant, Waterlow, with a gelatinous specimen from which the evil blood cells can be extracted.
Without realising that the ‘evil’ cells are stronger than those of ordinary humans, Emmanuel then uses some of them to immunise Penelope against the sickness that caused his beloved wife’s insanity. What he doesn’t know, or refuses to accept, is that the wife whose memory he worships was in fact a faithless harlot unworthy of his adoration, and that her mania was more likely the consequence of alcohol and narcotics abuse and an over-indulgence of dangerous sexual practices than it was genetic illness. Too late, Emmanuel realises that, in immunising Penelope, he has done the very thing he tried to prevent. Penelope takes to dressing up as her dead mother and goes on a murderous rampage through the nearby town.
Unscrupulous James, meanwhile, has learnt of the existence of the skeleton and decides to have it for himself. He arranges for it to be stolen and, in a desperate race against time, loses it en route to the asylum in a torrential rainstorm. The creeping flesh, in its full form, is unleashed. The creature it becomes heads back to Emmanuel’s house for a final confrontation…
Cushing is fabulous as Emmanuel and gets plenty to do, veering from the tender protectiveness of his innocent daughter, to the intense focus of a driven scientist, to the harrowing grief of the widower, and the terrible fear of the hunted victim. Lee has less to do as James, but is still impressive in the role. The interesting thing about both characters is that neither of them is all good or all bad. There are shades of grey that help us to understand them as human beings, but they are far from being clear-cut heroes or villains.
THE CREEPING FLESH was one of several horror films from the Tigon stable and, it must be said, one of the best of the bunch. This was certainly helped by the solid presence of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in the two lead roles and Freddie Francis in the director’s chair, but the script is unusually layered and literate for the genre and it’s clear that there was an attempt to make this particular film more of a psychological horror than a creature feature. The shrouded figure that evolves from the reconstituted flesh appears only briefly towards the end, and we’re left to wonder if it was real or merely the product of Emmanuel Hildern’s disturbed mind.
And therein, for me, lies the problem. In the end, THE CREEPING FLESH can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. Up until the moment the creature appears, it’s possible that Emmanuel has imagined the whole thing and we’re seeing it all from his point of view. This would still work thereafter were it not for the presence of James in the scenes involving the skeleton’s theft, unless we accept that he too is part of Emmanuel’s deranged fantasy. Either way, the fact that the creature makes an appearance may, perhaps, have been an eleventh-hour production decision to boost the potential audience. It’s too obvious and doesn’t sit very comfortably with the tone of the rest of the film.
With the intriguing central premise, well thought-through plot and decent production values, THE CREEPING FLESH is certainly worth more than a single viewing if all its alleged subtleties are to be given credence. And, to be fair, there does appear to be more here than meets the eye. Much has been said about the creature’s severed and flesh-covered finger having more than a vague resemblance to the male penis (and Sigmund Freud might have said that “sometimes a finger is just a finger,” although he probably didn’t). But few can doubt that the director and scriptwriters were going for subtext in some of those scenes, especially when the creature tears off Emmanuel’s digit to replace one it had lost. Is this Hildern being emasculated as a consequence of the death of his sexual partner (his wife)? Is it the creature usurping Hildern’s power as a man? Or is it simply a case of an eye for an eye (or indeed a finger for a finger)?