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THE CREEPING FLESH (1972)

"Do you believe in Evil, Doctor? I do not mean Evil as it is commonly understood. I mean Evil as a living organism..."

Director: Freddie Francis
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Lorna Heilbron, George Benson, Jenny Runacre
Screenplay: Peter Spencely and Jonathan Rumbold

Synopsis: Professor Emmanual Hildern (Peter Cushing) returns from New Guinea with a skeleton which he believes will revolutionise mankind’s theory of evolution, and perhaps win him the coveted Richter Prize. While having breakfast with his daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), Hildern reads a letter from his half-brother, James (Christopher Lee), which informs him that his wife, Marguerite (Jenny Runacre), has died in James’ lunatic asylum. Hildern keeps this from Penelope, who believes that her mother died many years earlier. Hildern visits James, and questions him as to whether Marguerite’s illness could be hereditary, and thus Penelope be at risk. James informs his brother that he has written a manuscript on that exact subject which he intends to submit for the Richter Prize. He also tells Hildern that he will no longer finance his expeditions. Hildern begins to clean the skeleton, but when he washes one of its fingers, the bones regrow a fleshy covering. Hildern severs the finger and keeps it in a jar. His books contain a New Guinean legend of an evil being buried in the earth which will come to life when it becomes wet. Hildern and his assistant, Wardelow (George Benson), begin to experiment on the finger. They find that its blood contains strange black cells that attack and consume the cells in normal blood. Hildern hopes to produce a vaccine against Evil to protect mankind. He prepares a serum and inoculates a monkey, whose blood cells later seem protected against the evil black cells. Meanwhile, Penelope has stolen Hildern’s keys and gone into her mother’s old room, which she was forbidden ever to enter. There she learns that Marguerite was a Folies Bergere dancer, that she went insane, and was institutionalised. Hildern catches her; Penelope becomes hysterical. Terrified that he is seeing the seeds of her mother’s illness in her, Hildern injects Penelope with his serum, hoping to protect her against insanity. Later that night, Wardelow finds that the experimental monkey has gone berserk, broken out of its cage, and wrecked part of the laboratory. Hildern rushes upstairs to his daughter, but Penelope has gone....

Comments: This is an interesting, imaginative film, one of Freddie Francis’ best directorial efforts. While a number of reviewers have criticised The Creeping Flesh for equating sex with evil (a favourite theorem of all too many horror film makers), it seems to me that they are missing the point. It is the characters within the film, notably Peter Cushing's Professor Hildern, who take this point of view, and not the film itself, which is an exploration of the wrongness of such an attitude. Like Peter Sasdy's Taste The Blood Of Dracula (1969), The Creeping Flesh is an attack upon the patriarchal Victorian male, whose unshakeable faith in his own infallibility brings about the destruction of the family unit. The early scenes very cleverly mislead the viewer into sympathy for Emmanual Hildern, who has a nasty brother and an insane wife. It is only when we are allowed to understand the nature of Marguerite Hildern's "illness" that the scales begin to tip, for the screenplay makes it clear that Marguerite's transgression was not insanity, but promiscuity. It is all too believable that her husband would have responded to this behaviour by having her consigned to his brother's lunatic asylum; it is, after all, well-documented that Victorian wives were routinely institutionalised for another form of unacceptable female behaviour: post-natal depression. We learn after Marguerite's death some ten years after she is committed that her "treatments" continued until the end. Given what we have been shown of the "treatments" dispensed by James Hildern, it is impossible not to view Marguerite's fate as a vicious form of punishment inflicted by outraged males. Once Marguerite is dead, Hildern's paranoia transfers itself to Penelope, his daughter, who he fears will "inherit her mother's illness" - that is, become a sexual being. At first glance, this would seem highly unlikely. Penelope Hildern is one of the most colourless and submissive females ever presented on film. Not only has she has obeyed her father's commands never to speak of her mother, or go into her room, or to read romantic novels, we learn that during the time her father has been away - over a year - she has never once left the house! But in this stifling moral climate, ignorance = innocence and knowledge = sin, and when Penelope learns some of the truth about her mother, Hildern panics, injecting her with what he thinks is a vaccine against Evil, but which instead is the very essence of Evil itself (this aspect of the plotline is very reminiscent of Nathanial Hawthorne's story "Rappacini's Daughter", in which a man keeps his daughter in a state of perpetual virginity by making her touch poisonous). Clad in Marguerite’s dress, Penelope makes her way to a seedy bar, where she has a drink, flirts with some men and dances publicly (and here we see that Penelope is indeed her mother’s daughter, inasmuch as they are both appallingly bad dancers). Frankly, I don’t see anything very "evil" in any of this, and I don’t think the film does either, but some reviewers have complained that once Penelope becomes "evil", she becomes sexual. In fact, Penelope's identification with her mother begins before her inoculation, when she (rightly) accuses her father of wanting to imprison her as he imprisoned his wife. Once injected, she develops homicidal mania, and not nymphomania. On the contrary: although she is mistaken for a prostitute, she nearly claws her first "client’s" face off, while she kills a man who grabs her with a broken bottle. However, retribution is swift, and before long Penelope too is a resident of James Hildern’s asylum, leaving her father with the dubious consolation of knowing that at least she’ll never suffer A Fate Worse Than Death - doing "it".

The screenplay of The Creeping Flesh, an original by Peter Spencely and Jonathan Rumbold, is a clever piece of writing, operating on a number of levels. Along with its dissection of male sexual panic, and the obvious irony of Hildern’s actions bringing about precisely the outcome he most fears, there is also the neat contradiction involved in watching a scientist, whose professed goal in life is to increase mankind's knowledge, fighting so desperately to preserve his daughter's ignorance. Furthermore, the film gives us a study of pathological sibling rivalry in the characters of Emmanual Hildern and his half-brother, James - mad scientist and mad doctor, respectively. Apparently, no-one ever bothered to explain to these two what "ethical" means, since between them they break just about every rule in the book in their quest for professional glory. The early sequences depict James as a sadistic tyrant, cold-bloodedly experimenting on the inmates of his asylum. Audience sympathy is automatically with Emmanual - until he starts experimenting on his daughter. Watching the Hilderns in action, you can only marvel at their nerve in assuming that Penelope’s insanity was inherited from her mother. The concept of Evil as a disease against which mankind can be vaccinated is an intriguing one. It is not difficult to imagine that middle-class Victorians may have thought of it in just that way, as something that attacked from the outside, which "nice" people could be protected against. Once reanimated, Evil itself, a black-caped fleshy thing that glares at Hildern through empty, blood-dripping eye-sockets (an effect copied from Francis’ own The Skull (1965)), proves rather more reasonable than any of the film’s human characters. Having tracked Emmanual Hildern to his house (one of my favourite moments in the film is when Evil knocks politely on Hildern’s front door), it transpires that all it really wants is a finger to replace the one that Hildern took from it (on several occasions, Evil waves its hand around in a comic inversion of the standard "finger" gesture). As for the digit which started all this, once it’s re-fleshed it frankly looks less like a finger and more like another portion of the human anatomy - appropriately enough, considering the sexual implications of the story. An intelligent and surprisingly unbloody film, The Creeping Flesh is bolstered by the co-casting of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Cushing’s casting, in particular, helps enormously by drawing the viewer into an identification which is badly misplaced. Lorna Heilbron is rather more convincing as Mark-1 than Mark-2, but watching mousy little Penelope evolve into a gleeful, sadistic killer is one of the film’s pleasures. The austere production design helps to underline the feeling of wrongness that permeates the story; however, Emmanual Hildern’s laboratory is pretty unconvincing (they usually are). Pay attention during the film’s opening credits, which play over a cleverly detailed and gruesome painting. I don’t know who the artist was, but that painting is very high on my list of movie memorabilia I’d kill to own.