The Creeping Flesh is one of a handful of vintage horror films that I used to watch late night on the BBC when I was in my teens. Almost all of those films were produced by Hammer. Seeing as this one stars both Bray Studio legends Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, I always naturally assumed it too was a Hammer film.
It was an easy mistake to make, as everything about this film screams Hammer, from the cast to the crew. The film was directed by Freddie Francis, who worked with both Hammer and Amicus throughout the 1960’s before directing The Creeping Flesh for Tigon in 1973. The creepy and surreal musical score was composed by Paul Ferris, who provided the music for both of Michael Reeves’ classic films The Sorcerers (1967) and Witchfinder General (1968), also for Tigon.
Peter Cushing plays anthropologist Emmanuel Hildern who has just returned from an expedition to New Guinea. He has unearthed a giant skeleton which he believes offers the missing evolutionary link between modern and primitive man and has brought it back to London to study. His assistant accidentally spills water on one of its hands, which somehow causes flesh to grow over the bones, gradually bringing the creature to life. The plot gets more convoluted from this point on, revolving around a family history of madness and the creature’s escape once it becomes fully revived.
Emmanuel Hildern attempts to study the evil within the creature, and develop a serum against it based on the creature’s blood. He is contrasted by his wealthy brother James, played by Christopher Lee. Lee’s character owns a mental hospital and knows all his brother’s secrets regarding his deranged wife; secrets which he has kept from his daughter, telling her her mother is dead. The sibling rivalry between the two brothers is maddening, and you really want Cushing’s character to succeed in the end, even though he has little to no chance of doing so. Emmanuel’s daughter Penelope is played by Lorna Heilbron. Naive and sheltered by her over-protective father, Penelope is the real victim of the film, condemned to inherit her mother’s madness through her father’s desire to save her.
The film is set in the late nineteenth century, a time when the scientific community was buzzing with the work of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace and the new science of evolution. It is a kind of cautionary tale examining what could happen when mankind meddles with nature in an attempt to see how it works. The curiosity of one scientist unearths an ancient evil and brings it into the civilised world, a place it was never meant to visit. The story resembles Frankenstein with the main difference being that the creature in this film is revived accidentally.
The creature is around eight feet tall and once it is fully revived it spends the latter half of the film ambling about covered in a black sheet. It’s quite basic by modern standards but it manages to create the effect of a monstrous evil being stalking the night. It’s surprisingly scary!
The Creeping Flesh is difficult to get hold of on DVD, with second hand copies turning up online for over £70. It was reissued on DVD about ten years ago and I deeply regret not buying a copy. I remember thinking that I would wait for the price to come down, but it never did! I had a VHS copy recorded from TV that I used to watch in the late 1990’s, but that tape is long gone now. The trailer is on YouTube, but I have so far been unable to get hold of a good quality version of the full film. It’s well worth watching if you get the chance, if just for the fact that it is essentially a Hammer horror film with a different studio’s name on the credits.
Steve Wilson is a freelance writer and musician from South Yorkshire. He plays the guitar and sings in the band Iron Void and is the founder of Doomanoid Records.