Welcome to Bloody British — a monthly column delving into the pure dead brilliant world of British horror. Let a homesick Scottish expat take you on a journey through the many horrors our haunted isles have to offer, from the hallowed halls of Hammer to the terrifying tower blocks of our contemporary cities and beyond. Pour yourself a cuppa and look forward to forgotten finds, cozy classics, and more Peter Cushing than you can shake a stick at.
Speaking of Peter Cushing, the actor lent himself well to March Break Month, playing plenty of characters who experience mental breakdowns throughout his career. Over the course of the six Frankenstein films he made with Hammer between 1957 and 1974, his portrayal of Baron Frankenstein helped to cement the enduring vision of the mad scientist in horror, particularly for British audiences. But why have just one mad character when you could have many, as is the case in The Creeping Flesh (1973)?
Directed by Freddie Francis, who had previously helmed Cushing-starring classics like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), The Skull (1965), and Tales from the Crypt (1972), The Creeping Flesh centers around the research of Victorian scientist Professor Emmanuel Hildern (Cushing). At the outset of the film, Emmanuel is seen in what appears to be his laboratory, painting a distinctly unscientific (but pretty damn cool) picture of an inhuman creature feasting on blood. He is just adding the finishing touches when he receives a visit from an unnamed young doctor (David Bailie) and begins to recount a story that raises surprisingly subversive questions about the nature of madness and how it is perceived…
A MISSION MOST MISGUIDED
The Creeping Flesh is told primarily through an extended flashback, beginning on the fateful morning that Emmanuel returns from an expedition to New Guinea carting an unusual souvenir: a gigantic, ancient (and charmingly rubbery) humanoid skeleton. This, he initially believes, is proof that intelligent life has existed on earth longer than previously thought, a discovery he hopes will win him the prestigious Richter Prize.
That night, Emmanuel begins to clean his specimen, starting, as I’m sure we all would, with the middle finger of its left hand. To his surprise, no sooner has water touched the appendage than it starts to regrow flesh (achieved through some deliciously gooey stop motion). Emmanuel quickly breaks off the now-fleshy finger which, true to The Creeping Flesh’s title, continues to creep even after being separated from its host. As unrealistic as the film’s effects may look to modern audiences, there’s something wonderfully unsettling about watching that thick, sausage-like severed finger wriggle.
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“As unrealistic as the film’s effects may look to modern audiences, there’s something wonderfully unsettling about watching [a] thick, sausage-like severed finger wriggle”
Wouldn’t you know it, one of Emmanuel’s books conveniently provides an explanation for this disturbing anomaly. The people of New Guinea, it says, believe their ancestors were a race of giants waging a war between good and evil. When the evil ones are exposed again, the rain will reawaken them and the battle will resume. Emmanuel’s “mine now” approach to finding ancient foreign artifacts, characteristic of 19th-century English explorers, has caused these bones to be exposed to the elements about 3,000 years ahead of schedule. And while he’s playing the “White God,” he might as well alter the course of human history by trying to abolish the presence of all evil on earth.
“Do you believe in evil, doctor? I do not mean evil as it is commonly understood. I mean the existence of evil as a living organism — as a plague, a disease, which infects humanity like cholera or typhoid. An epidemic, slowly spreading until it affects the whole world. Evil is a disease. A disease which can be prevented or cured like many others.”
Examining a blood sample from the finger, Emmanuel identifies what he calls “evil cells” — think wiggly, black blobs that look like cute little spiders. Using these, he is certain he’ll be able to create a vaccine for evil itself.
Ludicrous? Yes, but no more so than some of the other crazy theories Victorian scientists came up with. Eager to prove his thesis, Emmanuel whips up a serum from the evil cells and injects it into a monkey. Sadly, he doesn’t wait long before progressing to human trials, and that’s when The Creeping Madness really gets interesting.
A VERY FEMALE MADNESS
At the same time that the professor is looking at evil through a microscope, his daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron) is busy discovering the truth behind a lie her father has been telling her for years: that her mother Marguerite (Jenny Runacre) died when she was very young. In reality, Marguerite went “mad” and was committed to an asylum, finally perishing shortly before Emmanuel returned from his expedition.
In a flashback within the flashback, the cause of Marguerite’s supposed madness is revealed — and it’s here that The Creeping Flesh’s more subversive subtext starts to creep toward the surface. You see, Marguerite’s downfall seems to have been a fondness for men other than her husband. This promiscuity is positioned as the cause of her madness — at least, in Emmanuel’s eyes. As a result, she was dragged kicking and screaming to the brutal asylum run by Dr. James Hildern (Christopher Lee), Emmanuel’s brother, who studied her in hopes of winning the Richter Prize himself. During a later visit to the asylum, Emmanuel witnesses some of James’ staff performing painful experiments on patients, and we can only assume that Marguerite was subjected to much the same.
“…The Creeping Flesh delivers a thrilling conclusion involving a stolen skeleton, a towering horror, and a quest to replace a missing finger.”
To prevent Penelope from learning the truth, Emmanuel forbade her from ever entering her mother’s room or touching any of her things. In his mind, Marguerite’s madness might have been hereditary, and reading one of her romance magazines or dressing in her sultry red gowns is a surefire way to wake up the evil sexual liberation gene, right? To save Penelope from the ghastly fate of not being repressed, Emmanuel injects her with the barely-tested evil vaccine. In doing so, The Creeping Flesh draws a clear line between madness, evil, and female sexuality in a subtle satire of the Victorian institutions that did much the same.
Of course, you shouldn’t just inject your daughter with the blood of an ancient rubber skeleton, and the vaccine doesn’t quite work as planned. The previously demure Penelope soon dons one of her mother’s dresses, heads out to a seedy tavern, and gulps down a couple of gins. But since the men in The Creeping Flesh aren’t exactly feminists, one immediately assumes she’s a prostitute and attempts to force himself on her, while another gropes her as she’s trying to dance. After lashing out at them, Penelope is chased into a warehouse where she is attacked again — this time by Lenny (Kenneth J. Warren), a dangerous escaped madman who has already been shown assaulting women.
Maybe it’s the evil cells creeping around her bloodstream, or maybe she’s just sick of creepy men grabbing at her, but Penelope kills Lenny in front of a horrified crowd. In doing so, she secures her place in the same asylum where her mother lived out her final years, and Emmanuel’s self-fulling prophecy is complete. But The Creeping Flesh is not finished sending characters to the madhouse just yet.
A CAGE OF HIS OWN DEVISING
Let’s talk about mad scientists for a moment. Though filmed in 1972, the film that features Cushing’s final outing as Baron Frankenstein — Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974) — would not be released until the year after The Creeping Flesh hit theaters. The two serve as interesting bedfellows. By Monster from Hell, Baron Frankenstein had gone from a coldly scientific man with questionable morals to an outright rapist and murderer. Professor Emmanuel Hildern, on the other hand, is presented as a loving yet fatally overprotective father to the end. His own particular flavor of madness — and, if we’re equating them (as 19th-century medicine often did), evil — is born less from cruelty and more from his own hangups about women.
This misunderstanding ultimately leads him to the asylum where first his wife and now his daughter have been locked up, but not before The Creeping Flesh delivers a thrilling conclusion involving a stolen skeleton, a towering horror, and a quest to replace a missing finger. You see, if Emmanuel had never injected Penelope with the vaccine, triggering the series of events that led her straight into James’ clutches, then James might never have found out about his experiments and the skeleton in his lab. Being unscrupulous and hungry for prestige, James swipes the old bones for himself — inadvertently getting them wet in the process. The just-add-water monster, light one finger, decides to pay a visit to the man who took it. This proves the final straw for Emmanuel’s already strained mind: when James finds him, he is humming and crying over Marguerite’s picture, utterly lost.
“One of Cushing and Lee’s last and best collaborations, The Creeping Flesh isn’t as well known as some of their earlier work — and that’s a crying shame.”
The last we see of Emmanuel, he is pitifully begging for help at the bars of his cage, the laboratory he was painting in at the start of the film merely (spoilers!) a delusion conjured by his broken mind. The Creeping Flesh’s script, penned by Peter Spenceley and Jonathan Rumbold, leaves things on an eerily ambiguous note as the smug asylum director mentions that Emmanuel’s madness runs so deep he falses believes them to be brothers and one of the patients to be his daughter. But the film’s final shot — the missing finger on Emmanuel’s left hand — perhaps lends some credence to his extraordinary tale.
One of Cushing and Lee’s last and best collaborations, The Creeping Flesh isn’t as well known as some of their earlier work — and that’s a crying shame. A Shakespearean tragedy clothed in a curious monster movie, its pacing can be a little wonky, but the big reveal of the monster and the clever narrative twist are well worth the wait. It’s a remarkably layered film (I’ve barely scratched the surface here) that rewards rewatching. But you don’t have to read into the subtext to have a bloody good time, because The Creeping Flesh is full of strange surprises.
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