Wednesday, 10 July 2013


Scientist Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing) unearths what appears to be a missing link while on an expedition in New Guinea.  His attempts at unlocking the skeleton’s secrets are compromised by the precarious mental condition of his daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron) and the interference of his bitter half-brother James (Christopher Lee)

In the 1950s and 60s, Freddie Francis established himself as one of the premiere lighting cameramen in Europe, snagging an Oscar for his work on Sons and Lovers (1960) and winning much acclaim for his work on The Innocents (1961).  Like so many directors of photography, Francis had a yen to direct.  He made his first film as a director in 1962 with the obscure romantic comedy Two and Two Make Six (1962), but the German-financed The Brain and the Hammer Films psychological thriller Paranoiac (both also 1962) pointed to where his career would evolve.

Francis, being a pragmatist at heart, initially accepted his pigeonholing as a “horror” director, and would take great pride in imbuing his films with sufficient visual gloss as a means of patching up the often inadequate screenplays he was handed to work with.  As time wore on, however, his dissatisfaction became quite evident – and indeed he would approach most of his directorial assignments of the 1970s with a mixture of contempt and indifference.

There’s really very little to recommend in such films as The Vampire Happening (1970), Trog (1970), Craze (1973) and The Legend of the Werewolf (1974), but signs of his former flair are happily on display in The Creeping Flesh.  Francis responded well to the screenplay by Peter Spenceley and Jonathan Rumbold, with its heady mixture of Victorian sci-fi and Lovecraft-flavored chills.  The end result is his last great hurrah as a filmmaker; he would direct only sporadically from that point on, and in 1980, he made a triumphant return to the station of lighting cameraman when producer Mel Brooks and director David Lynch drafted him to lens The Elephant Man.  He would go on to work with some of the most exciting and dynamic filmmakers of the new generation, including Martin Scorsese (for whom he shot a super stylish redux of Cape Fear, 1991), and would win another Academy Award for his work on Glory (1989).  Francis died in 2007, at the age of 89.

The story is certainly an eventful one, and it affords both of its iconic lead performers an opportunity to shine.  Cushing is cast in the flashier role, while Lee is seemingly relegated to yet another humorless authority figure.  Cushing imbues his character with ample humanity, but it is the character’s single minded obsessiveness which links him most closely with his most famous genre characterizations: Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing.  Emmanuel is very much the absent father.  He dotes on Penelope whenever he returns from his trip, and there’s no question that he genuinely adores her, but his work always comes first; ultimately, he fails to realize her gradual slide into madness until it is too late.  True to form, he attempts to over compensate for this by using his discovery in an attempt to “cure” her madness on a biological level – the experiment is doomed to failure, of course, and one is left wondering just how sane he was from the get go.

Lee’s role as the embittered half-brother doesn’t allow him so much screen time (though he was given top billing in deference to his popularity at the box office), but he delivers a wonderfully detailed characterization, just the same. James can barely contain his contempt and jealousy towards his brother, which prompts him to take a certain sadistic glee in getting the upper hand on him. One gets the sense of James’ lifetime of struggle and unhappiness as he was pushed aside in favor of his more “privileged,” upper crust older brother, and as such his actions become almost understandable. It’s a marvelous performance that seldom gets the attention it deserves.

Lee and Cushing are supported by an excellent gallery of character actors. Lorna Heilbron is superb in the difficult role of Penelope, which requires her to run the gamut from doe-eyed, doting daughter to wild-eyed, crazed harlot – and she never hits a false note.  George Benson, who formerly mugged his way through a comic cameo in Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958), is excellent as Cushing’s devoted lab assistant. Duncan Lamont is properly authoritative as the suspicious police inspector investigating the ensuing carnage, while real-life couple Michael Ripper and Catherine Finn show up in small roles – he as a blustery deliveryman, she as Heilbron’s caring housekeeper.

Francis handles the material with energy and conviction, but the film loses points for its introduction of a pointless subplot involving hulking character actor Kenneth J. Warren as an escapee on the loose from Lee’s insane asylum. Warren is fine in the role, but the subplot goes nowhere and was clearly crammed into an already busy narrative to pad the running time a bit.

The Creeping Flesh also has excellent production values – the sets and costuming are on a par with the best of Hammer, and the creepy music score by Paul Ferris helps to set the right mood. The cinematography by longtime Francis collaborator Norman Warwick is also lovely without being unduly fussy.  Special note must also be made of Roy Ashton’s makeup work.

The title is explained by the fact that the skeleton “grows” flesh when it comes into contact with water – which Cushing discovers when trying to clean it up a bit… The decidedly phallic looking finger that results from this is truly horrific, as is the final reveal of the regenerated skeleton, which becomes exposed to a rain storm when Lee engineers a break in to steal the specimen.  Francis even reuses his “skull point of view” gag from The Skull (1965) to maximize the effect of this gruesome makeup.

Fans of Cushing and Lee would do well to check out The Creeping Flesh if they haven’t done so already.  And even if you already have, it may well be time to go back and reacquaint yourself with it again; it’s a good one.

Feature: Troy Howarth
Gallery: Marcus Brooks

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