I recently bought The Creeping Flesh on DVD, in my ongoing bid to complete my collection of Peter Cushing horror movies, firmly convinced I’d seen it on television several years ago, before home video became a thing, hence it had never been in my collection on any format. It was disappointing that the film had never been released on disc in the UK, but thanks to Amazon, I sourced a Spanish release with the English soundtrack, which plays perfectly well (it’s this version that I link to below).
I knew what the creature in the movie looked like, all rubbery and gelatinous, and I remembered seeing one of its fingers cut off with a chisel. So, I must’ve seen it – right?
Wrong. Confusion reigned when I played the disc and realised that what I thought was a Peter Cushing film set in the modern day also co-starred Christopher Lee and was set in Victorian times. How could this be? Well, I delved back in some books that I’ve owned since the seventies and saw exactly what I remembered – a few still shots from the film in The Movie treasury of Horror Movies and its companion volume Monsters and Vampires, both by Alan Frank. None of the stills featured Christopher Lee, but there was the finger being detached, there was the monster, and there was Cushing. Forty-three years or so had convinced me that I’d seen the film. On the plus side, I had a rare opportunity to enjoy a Lee/Cushing film I had never seen before.
The story is told in flashback, reminiscent really of the structure of Cushing and Lee’s Curse of Frankenstein (1957) by Professor Emmanuel Hildern (Cushing). Hildern is a scientist just returning from an expedition in New Guinea, excited about his staggering find – the complete skeletal remains of a large humanoid creature that existed before Neanderthal man as the bones were discovered much deeper in the Earth.
Hildern, a widower, lives with his daughter Penelope (Laura Heilbron) and his parenting style veers from strict authoritarian to doting and loving, cold and warm. But he has a secret he’s keeping from his daughter for her own good. At breakfast, he receives a letter telling him that his wife has passed away. Confused?
His wife was a burlesque dancer (and to be honest, from the flashbacks, kind of a slut) who succumbed to raving insanity and was committed to a nearby asylum under the care of Hildern’s brother James (Christopher Lee). Penelope was never told what really happened to her mother in order to spare her feelings – and besides that, Hildern is convinced the mother’s condition was hereditary and is afraid Penelope will go the same way, which explains his over protectiveness. But now, his wife has died for real in the institution.
Meanwhile, James has his own problems – one of the more dangerous of his inmates has escaped.
In trying to figure out just exactly what this large skeleton is, and its origins, Hildern reads of an old legend from the region telling of evil giants who will rise again in the rain. So, keeping this skeleton out of the reach of water is imperative, so cleaning it with a wet cloth was always going to be a bad idea. Luckily, only the finger was cleaned, which immediately started growing a disgusting looking gelatinous flesh and was hacked off with a chisel and popped into a jar, where it stands, wriggling like something out of an Ann Summers party.
When Penelope finds out about her mother having been alive all those years and institutionalised as well, her reaction is pretty emotional, which Hildern takes as the first sign that she’s slipping into insanity – causing him to make one of the most monumental foul-ups in horror movies since Frankenstein decided he could build a man. Follow this logic; if the giant was evil personified, then evil must be organic, right? The blood from the rubbery dildo, sorry – I mean finger contains cells of pure evil, small spidery black things that attack. So, if you could use the blood to make an evil-conquering vaccine, kind of like a flu jab that kills evil, then all he need do is inject his daughter and the serum will eradicate the evil of insanity and they can all live happily ever after. (Yeah, don’t question it, or the whole film falls apart – besides, Peter Cushing makes it all sound reasonable.)
It’s a shame he didn’t wait until he could fully see the results on the monkey he experimented on though. Poor thing goes nuts and develops abnormal strength. Now, he has a bigger problem on his hands as Penelope heads to the city and goes on a killing spree, using only her bare hands encountering also the dangerous lunatic who escaped from James’s asylum who comes to a bad end.
In the meantime, James decides to hire someone to steal his brothers research and the skeleton. Why, oh why did the idiot have to carry out the theft on a rainy night? So, as well as super strong, emotionally charged homicidal daughters, there’s now a globby snot-monster made of pure evil wandering around.
Ending with a twist straight from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919) that completely changes the audience perception of the whole story, this is an under-rated classic and a gem of a film I’m happy to have discovered, even if I thought I was rediscovering it.
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