Freddie Francis, 1973
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Lorna Heilbron In Victorian England, Professor Hildern (Peter Cushing) uncovered a very strange humanoid skeleton while on an expedition to New Guinea. It is very old and oddly developed, so he begins studying it. Meanwhile, his psychiatrist brother, James (Christopher Lee), runs an asylum where Hildern’s wife has been a patient for many years; James informs his brother that she has recently passed away and that Hildern will now have to fund his own research. The despairing Hildern begins to recklessly experiment with the skeleton, which responds strongly to water, allowing Hildern to develop a serum. He tests it on his own daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), hoping to find a way to prevent her from inheriting her mother’s madness, which sets in motion a violent chain of events... Tragically, The Creeping Flesh represented the death knell for Tigon. Producer and studio head Tony Tenser sold the studio not long after and though I believe they made a few more sex films, this was their last genre film. But at least they went out on a high note. Throughout the last few weeks, I’ve written a lot about my love for Tigon’s films; many of which defiantly bucked the more conservative, traditional paths Hammer and Amicus wandered down and, even at their worst, are always interesting. This one in particular benefits from two strong performances (as always) from Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. I can’t help but wonder if the studio knew it would be their final horror film, as the script really went all out and combined a lot themes popular in British horror at the time: mad science, madness and/or someone being driven insane, a killer on the loose, and supernatural evil. The Creeping Flesh is definitely among the series of great Lee and Cushing collaborations made in the early ‘70s, which, for a variety of reasons, amount to some of my favorite British horror films: Scream and Scream Again (1970, with Vincent Price), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), Horror Express (1972), Nothing But the Night (1973), and even The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). Though the script has its fair share of issue and it can’t quite top the fun quotient of something like Dracula A.D. 1972 or the sheer gumption of Horror Express, this one is thick with atmosphere, there’s also loads of delightful scenery chewing, and Cushing, in particular, is obviously having a great time as the over-the-top doctor. It was really in these later roles that he pulled out all the stops and really stepped away from the grim, measured performances of the early Frankenstein and Dracula films for Hammer to churn out the kinds of dazzling roles that made films like Corruption (1968), Twins of Evil (1971), and Fear in the Night (1972) stand out so vividly. In the case of this film, both Cushing and Lee are bolstered by competent handling from director Freddie Francis. He’s one of my favorites in British horror and he’s one of the few who worked prolifically for all three of the major genre studios. Even though his name is sometimes overshadowed by people like Terence Fisher, he has left an indelible stamp on English horror. For Hammer, he made films like early black and white suspense outings Paranoiac (1963) and Nightmare (1964), as well as helming later entries in their franchises like Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968). For Amicus, he not only worked on some of their anthology films, such as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), but directed the more interesting single-plot efforts like my favorite, The Skull (1965), and The Psychopath (1966). He even had his hand in later horror from miscellaneous studios and ranged from the serious — such as Girly (1970) — to the patently absurd, like Trog (1970). This film was his only Tigon outing and though it’s their last, it’s definitely one of their best. The Creeping Flesh is one of those films that I just have to recommend, because I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed by the Cushing-Lee combo. And if you are, please don’t tell me about it. The film is available on DVD and I think at this point, I need hardly say how enthusiastic I am about the majority of these underrated Tigon films. I wish the studio had an opportunity to make more and, in a way, I feel like they’re poking fun at Hammer and Amicus a little bit with titles like The Creeping Flesh and some of their wilder, more out there films. The conclusion of this one in particular seems to acknowledge that: after spending the running time mashing together everything from mad science (I will never understand why he injects his daughter with the serum) to the dangers of arrogant British colonialism, Francis and company leave you wondering whether the events happened at all — as Hildern has presented them throughout via narration — or if he’s just totally barking mad and his brother (played with sublime disdain by Lee, who is a real cold bastard here) has been in the right all along.