The Creeping Flesh (1973)

SEPTEMBER 21, 2020


If nothing else, The Creeping Flesh proves that the scripts were a big part of why Hammer films succeeded and have endured. The film stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and was directed by Freddie Francis, same as any number of Hammer classics, but the script is from a pair of newcomers (for one of them it was his first and last writing credit), and while it's not a disaster by any means, I quickly understood why it is I had almost no awareness of the film's existence until I found it on Amazon Prime when purposely looking for something older to watch. The title seemed vaguely familiar, but when I saw the cast I was curious how it is that it didn't come up more often... until I watched it.

But I was still curious about its relatively obscure status for the first half hour, which established a pretty typical Hammer-like scenario, albeit with the oft-unsuccessful bookending device that shows a crazed Cushing telling a colleague about his last experiment and how he ended up in his current predicament. His story begins three years earlier, when he was working on an experiment and study involving an old skeleton he found on one of his expeditions, believing it to be some kind of missing evolutionary link due to the enlarged size of its skull. He's so focused on his work that he forgets to tend to his young adult daughter, who seems to be confined to the house and lamenting that her mother died when she was so young that she barely remembers her. But we quickly learn this was a lie; her mother was actually at an institution and only passed away in the past few days.

When Cushing makes a trip to the asylum to collect her belongings, we learn that it's run by Lee, so we know something fishy is going on. The two men are half-brothers, apparently, and both competing for some science award, and it was at this point I was hoping that this would be similar to Horror Express, with the two men teaming up to tackle some ancient enemy (perhaps being able to win their prize together like real brothers?), but as Cushing leaves a patient escapes, and it's at this point the movie begins to start to collapse under the weight of its innumerable subplots. Cushing's daughter finds out her mother was alive, prompting a flashback about how she ended up in the asylum, Lee's own experiments fail, prompting him to steal Cushing's research, the escaped guy is causing havoc in the town, etc, etc.

And thus, instead of Horror Express (which co-starred Telly Savalas, as you might recall) I actually started thinking about a different bald dude: namely Horace Pinker. Like my beloved Shocker, this movie just keeps changing gears, to the extent that any quick description would only be summarizing a twenty minute chunk of the movie, just as all those "Shocker is about a killer who can go into the TV" writeups are basically spoilers since that doesn't happen until the third act. Lee - who gets top billing, mind - disappears for a while and only interacts with Cushing briefly, and Cushing himself is also MIA for a bit when the narrative decides to focus on his daughter for a bit. In the movie's weirdest subplot, he injects her with his experimental serum hoping it would calm her down and also prevent her from becoming like her mother (science!), only for her to turn kind of feral but also trampy, wearing revealing dresses and hanging out at the tavern, a far cry from her schoolmarm type attire. You'd expect Cushing to be trying to find her/get her back, but nope - he barely appears in this lengthy section of the film.

So did the serum do this to her, or is she simply afflicted by the same confusing "disease" as her mother? The flashback (which is inside of a flashback, now that I think about it) doesn't really clarify much; we learn that she was a burlesque dancer of sorts who slept around while ignoring Cushing (their lone scene together almost makes it seem like he's a ghost since she doesn't acknowledge him at all), though how she turned into someone requiring hospitalization is unknown - I guess we can just assume it was syphilis? The period setting (1890s) has me thinking that must be the case, and also why they don't seem to actually be treating her but simply tossing her in a cell, but it could have used some explanation. This is a movie that has Cushing's scientist go out of his way to show another scientist that their specimen's skull is twice as large as a normal one by holding a normal one next to it, something neither man would actually need clarified but done for the audience's benefit. Surely they could have lent us the same kind of history lesson on what were then 80 year old medical practices for diseases (and also, name the disease!).

Eventually, the title starts to make sense, as the skeleton becomes animated/revitalized by water, of all things, and starts lurking around on some kind of quest (the point of which is only revealed in the final shot, and it's kind of funny so I won't spoil it here). These scenes are fine; there's a particularly genius bit of planning where the hulking brute (ten feet tall) is going up the stairs and we see a chandelier on the other side of the frame swinging a bit, because he would have bumped it as he walked past on his way to the staircase - that's the sort of attention to detail that I love. But in the grand scheme of things, it's somewhat anticlimactic, as his value as the movie's villain had been diminished by about a half dozen other things demanding the spotlight.

I WILL spoil the big reveal though, because the movie is almost fifty years old and I am warning you to boot. We return to the present day where Cushing (who is very Donald Pleasence-y in these scenes) is finishing up his story to his new colleague, and only then is it revealed (though I guessed it earlier, *pats self on back*) that he is now institutionalized himself, with the "new colleague" just being a new doctor there who is checking up on him. The new guy exits the cell (made up as a lab) and meets with Lee, still running the joint and the proud recipient of that science award. And then we have to wonder if it really happened or if Cushing was simply crazy; the aforementioned final shot suggests it was real, but Lee says they're not really related which is the sort of thing that could be easily proven/disproven (wouldn't there be documentation about their parents somewhere, especially since they were somewhat high profile people?) so it only confuses matters more. And is it a legitimate attempt at "keep the audience talking long after they've left the theater" kind of stuff, or simply a cheap way of waving off their convoluted story? "Oh, that's why it was so erratic - it was a story from an insane person."

(A crazy person who frequently told parts of the story that they were not only absent for, but also would have had no way of knowing later due to the deaths of the only witnesses.)

Granted, neither of the marquee stars had a 100% success rate with their solo films, but when they teamed up it was usually at least fun, so it's kind of a shame to see they (plus Francis) weren't able to really save this one. An OK enough timekiller, sure, but one that stubbornly refuses to utilize its best assets, with a focus problem that will remind you of trying to reign in a hyper child at a toy store. Certainly not worth digging through Amazon Prime's remarkably awful interface to find, at any rate.

What say you?


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