The Creeping Flesh (1973)
The Creeping Flesh (1973)

Genre: Sci-Fi Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 32 min.

Release Date: February 9th, 1973 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Freddie Francis Actors: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Lorna Heilbron, George Benson, Kenneth J. Warren, Duncan Lamont, Catherine Finn




rofessor Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing) desperately wants someone to believe his theories on evil. It’s of the utmost importance for the survival of the human race. His scientific research proves that evil is a living organism, like an epidemic slowly spreading; and he needs a qualified doctor to carry on and disseminate his work.

He recounts how it all started, some years ago in 1893, when he returned from a trip to New Guinea, bringing with him a complete skeleton – an artifact that will benefit the whole world, inspire books, and maybe even win him a 10,000 pound prize. After tearing apart the enormous wooden crate that hasn’t left his side since the Australian expedition, the professor dives into his research, certain that the colossal skeleton predates neanderthals; and its unusual, oversized skull turns evolutionary hypotheses upside down. Laboratory partner Waterlow (George Benson) is equally enthusiastic, but Emmanuel’s daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron) can’t muster hope for another one of her father’s fruitless, end-of-the-earth endeavors.

Word from the Hildern institute for Mental Disorders, run by Emmanuel’s half-brother James (Christopher Lee), reaches the professor, informing him of the passing of his wife, Marguerite. It casts a dour mood over his formerly joyous archaeological find, though it’s James’ formal rescinding of financial aid for Emmanuel’s extravagant excursions that brings him the most distress. That evening, after hydrating the hand of the ancient skeleton, flesh begins to form and blood begins to flow through materializing veins along the bony digits. It’s a terrifying occurrence that prompts the scientist to sever a finger for preservation in a vile.

Despite the upfront silliness of the premise, the seriousness with which the actors approach the material is exemplary. Casting Cushing and Lee in lead roles is an invaluable boon, allowing their expertise and credibility with low-budget horror pictures to carry the opening moments far beyond their outward appearances of Hammer customariness. Admittedly, nothing much happens in the first act. But establishing a morbid tone and a macabre atmosphere is integral to the film’s success; the costumes and set decorations are sharp, as is Paul Ferris’ creepy music, but it’s Cushing and Lee who are most significant in generating a sense of unavoidable dread. Something dark and abominable lies just around the corner.

“Evil is a disease.” Though it boasts an insane asylum, an escaped psychopath, experiments on animals, electric shock therapy, locked rooms, supernatural possession, sexual assault, betrayal, madness, murder, and plenty of brooding secrets, “The Creeping Flesh” is something of a drama as well, chronicling the morose events leading to the institutionalization of Emmanuel’s wife. It’s the tale of a desperate man searching for godless solutions to unanswerable questions about the human mind – like one of Frankenstein’s experiments gone horrifically awry (complete with an angry mob response). And he’s doomed to destroy his loved ones in the process; hubris has a heavy price in the Grand Guignol genre.

“I shall have to employ someone for whom ethics have no significance.” Curiously, the film spends more time examining the deterioration and transformation of psyches than with the literal creeping flesh; anyone expecting a traditional monster movie about a killer skeleton will be disappointed. Brief moments of stop-motion animation and practical effects are interesting, but it’s the wicked ambitions of misguided, conceited men that are at the forefront. Nevertheless, the finale – which takes place on a dark and stormy night – blends haunted house techniques with home invasion and unholy revenge, culminating in a spectacularly grim conclusion.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10