November 14, 2011

Evil in the Blood

The Creeping Flesh (1973)

Evil seems like such a simple, straightforward concept, and yet, in this ferociously complex world of ours, it's about as easy to pin down as a glob of jello. I think it's safe to say that one person's evil is another's necessity: "You see officer, I just had to clobber him over the head before he could do the same to me-- he's the evil one, not me…" In the end, it comes down to that old standard refrain, "I know it when I see it…" (It also helps to clear up the ambiguity when the evil act is done by someone who doesn't look like you, doesn't speak your language, doesn't worship the way you do, and so on. Of course, when you do much the same thing, there's always a good reason for what you did. Yep, real easy to spot, this thing called evil… but I digress.)

A big attraction of classic horror movies is that they toss out the complexities of the real world for one in which good and evil are easily discerned, the rules are clearly laid out, and there's great entertainment in watching the protagonists deal with the palpable evil in their midst.

In The Creeping Flesh, evil is very real, even measurable -- in the words of the intrepid Victorian scientist Emmanuel Hildren (Peter Cushing), "evil is a disease." It's in the blood, and can be identified by simply examining a sample under a microscope. And yet, the evil of The Creeping Flesh refuses to be conquered by science, and instead turns Hildren's best laid plans into catastrophe.

The story is told in flashback, as Hildren relates his extraordinary discoveries to a young visiting doctor in what appears to be the older professor's well-appointed laboratory. It all starts when Hildren brings back an immense skeleton that he found buried in New Guinea. Flushed with excitement, he explains to his somewhat dim assistant Waterlow (George Benson) that the cranium of his find is larger and thus more advanced (a dubious proposition) than that of garden-variety Neanderthal man, but the skeleton was found in an far older rock layer. As his prim, sheltered daughter Penelope waits patiently for her father to come to breakfast, Hildren crows to his assistant that his skeleton will "revolutionize science" and perhaps earn him the prestigious Richter prize.

One of the last horror film pairings of the great
actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Hildren's excitement is interrupted by news from his half brother James (Christopher Lee), that his wife has died in the asylum that James runs. He travels out to the asylum to meet with his half-brother, and in the short visit, an intense sibling rivalry emerges. It seems that in typical Victorian fashion, Emmanuel has kept the mother's condition a secret from poor Penelope, leading her to believe that her mother died years ago. The cold, arrogant James uses the dire family secret as leverage, telling his subdued brother that the tables have turned, that he is now the respected man of science, and that he will be submitting his book on the origins of mental disease for the Richter prize. And as a parting shot, he tells the dispirited Emmanuel that he won't be subsidizing any more expeditions to New Guinea or anywhere else. As Emmanuel leaves the asylum, he witnesses an early (and horrific) form of electroshock performed on an unwilling patient who screams with pain-- apparently these cruel experiments are the basis for Jame's so-called breakthrough in curing mental illness.

Back at his estate, Hildren turns his attention once more to the enigmatic skeleton. The scientist spills some water on one of the skeleton's fingers, and watches in amazement as flesh forms quickly over the bone, ending in a giant, curved fingernail. The disquieting development reminds him of a legend he heard in New Guinea, of a race of evil giants who had been conquered, but who were destined to be revived by the tears of the gods -- rainwater -- to wreak havoc and evil on the world again. Curiosity overcoming fear, he takes a blood sample from the newly formed finger, and compares the cells with a sample of his own blood. The cells from the finger even look evil under the microscope -- black, spidery looking things that overwhelm normal cells when given the chance. The man of science promptly decides that the spider cells are exactly that -- the root of evil (!!?)

Goaded by James' arrogant claim of being on the fast track to scientific fame and fortune, Hildren feverishly works on a vaccine against evil using cells from the uncanny finger. Meanwhile, left to her own devices, Penelope breaks into her mother's locked room and discovers that the woman  -- a glamorous dance hall star -- had not died but instead had been declared insane and committed to her uncle's asylum. The befuddled Hildren interprets her natural reaction of shock and anger at his duplicity as a sign that she may have inherited her mother's insanity. Desperate, he injects her with the vaccine against evil (after having tested on just one aggressive monkey). When the monkey turns up dead on the floor of his laboratory, and Waterlow comments that it was fortunate that they didn't try the serum on a human being, Hildren's face turns white. In trying to rid the world of evil, he has unleashed it on his own family.

These blood cells certainly look evil.
Her blood infected with ancient evil, shy Penelope turns into a ravishing creature with wild, roving eyes who decides to don her mother's dancehall dress and go paint the town red (with blood). After clawing a rich creep's face in a tavern, she then slashes the throat of a lusty sailor who tries to force himself on her. Escaping from the angry mob, she runs straight into the arms of a huge brute who's escaped from her uncle's asylum. They run up to the second floor of an abandoned warehouse. As the escaped inmate watches the mob from a large open window, she hits him with a plank of wood, then gleefully mashes his hands with her heels as he desperately hangs onto the window sill. He falls to his death. The police grab her and, irony of ironies, rush her off to her uncle's grim asylum.

His niece's sudden turn for the worse arouses James' curiosity. He noses around Emmanuel's estate. Finding the skeleton and his brother's notes, he puts it all together and decides that the skeleton and its unusual properties might just be the capstone to his own research on insanity. On a dark and stormy night, he has a henchman steal the skeleton from his brother's lab. As the man hauls the huge thing out of the house, one of the skeletal hands dips momentarily into a pool of water. When Hildren discovers the theft, he realizes to his horror that someone has taken the monstrous thing into a driving rain, where, according to legend, it will be revived to spread evil across the world…   The film's ending is very reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), but in the very best dramatic tradition, leaves a sliver of doubt in the careful viewer's mind.

Released in 1973, The Creeping Flesh looks and plays like classic Hammer costume horror from a decade earlier. The credits certainly have fooled many people into believing it's a Hammer production: Cushing and Lee, Freddie Francis directing, and Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper in a small role as a delivery man. Creeping Flesh was actually a co-production of modest Tigon Pictures and World Film Services. Although, Hammer deserves credit, if only in an unofficial, inspirational capacity-- Tigon specialized in recreating the Hammer look and feel in a number of low-budget horror films of the late '60s and early '70s, including Witchfinder General (1968; with Vincent Price), and The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971).

Creeping Flesh was one of the last pairings of Cushing and Lee in a horror film. Unfortunately, the two spend precious little screen time together. Lee, like in many films, knits his brows together and acts alternately arrogant and peeved. In contrast, Cushing's performance is a breathtaking roller coaster of emotions, from the initial excitement and joy of his archaeological discovery, to the depths of despair as he realizes what he has done to his only daughter. But comparing the two actors and their performances is comparing apples and oranges-- Lee was above all a physical actor, at his absolute best when bounding down cobwebbed stairs as a very robust, snarling Dracula, or swatting away tomb desecrators like flies as the enormous, intimidating Mummy. Cushing was the polar opposite -- the master of nuanced emotion. Even when playing villains like Victor Frankenstein, he still managed to lend a smidgeon of humanity to his characters. Cushing's Frankenstein betrays the very human exasperation of the A-type personality just wanting to be left alone to do his work. We've all known people like that (fortunately most real workaholics are not quite as destructive in pursuit of their passions as ol' Victor).

Her blood infected with ancient evil, formerly shy
Penelope decides to sow her wild oats.
The other superlative performance is Lorna Heilbron's. She begins the film as prim, proper Penelope, whose greatest desire is to get her absent-minded father to come to breakfast, and ends up as a wild-eyed, lascivious female animal on the prowl in the grimier parts of Victorian England. One minute, you're thinking of her as just another pleasant supporting character, and the next, she's absolutely commanding your attention, and you can't take your eyes off her. It's a shame there's not more of her work on DVD-- The Creeping Flesh is one of only a handful of films on Lorna's resume, the bulk of her work consisting of British television.

In certain respects, The Creeping Flesh was a doomed project, trying to emulate a style of horror that seemed dated even in the mid-1960s. In 1973, Bob Clark's groundbreaking Black Christmas (1974) was just a year away, and John Carpenter's icing on the slasher cake, Halloween (1978), was just another few years down the road. At the time it was released,  the film was a curious anachronism. Now, with the tiresome slasher genre at an ebb again, lovingly-crafted period pieces like The Creeping Flesh seem fresh and all the more entertaining.

Columbia Tristar released a very decent widescreen DVD print of The Creeping Flesh in 2004.

1 comment:

  1. jervaise brooke hamsterJanuary 30, 2014 at 8:53 PM

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