Sunday, June 12, 2011

Beneath the Skin

THE CREEPING FLESH (1973)

Peter Cushing plays man of science Emmanuel Hildern, whose good intentions lead him to disaster, professionally and personally. Once again Cushing delivers a performance that not only saves the film, but offers a poignant parallel to the recent real-life loss of his wife. 

A joint Tigon/World Film Services feature, THE CREEPING FLESH - directed by Freddie Francis - is clearly Hammer-Victorian, though largely shot on redressed sets from Amicus's THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970). The film has gathered momentum over the years as one of the few period piece British horror classics of the 1970s, yet the storyline - which has to thread together waring half-brothers, a family mental disorder, curing evil through science, an escaped lunatic, and a skeleton which grows back its flesh when in contact with water - is too disparate to create a cohesive whole. Despite fittingly juggling Victorian obsessions of palaeontology and psychology, this overly ambitious mix makes the film needlessly sluggish and the ending - despite its playful twist - leaves a monster roaming for a sequel that never came.

Revealed in flashback, Anthropologist Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing) returns from New Guinea with a giant skeleton. His daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), has been waiting anxiously for his return, unaware that the mother she believed long-dead has in fact only just died in a mental institution run by her father’s cold and calculating half-brother James (Christopher Lee). Working on the relic - believed to be the legendary Shish Kang, the Evil One - Hildern and assistant Waterlow (George Benson) conclude that evil is a disease of the blood, and that the skeleton may hold the key to a vaccine. Hildern is startled to find that the skeleton’s tissue can regenerate when touched by water, and is certain that its reconstituted blood can create an immunity from evil. He injects his daughter with a serum to stop her being afflicted with the madness that drove his wife Marguerite (Jenny Runacre) insane, but instead it turns Penelope into a psychopathic killer. James grows jealous of Emmanuel's work, stealing his research papers and the bones; but when his coach crashes during a storm, the skeleton develops into humanoid form.
 
By 1973, the world had moved on from Hammer Gothic. Yet THE CREEPING FLESH embraces it, with mixed results.

Cushing and Lee (top-billed for a second-string role) are unsurprisingly the highlight. Emmanuel's eroding mental stability is expertly portrayed by Cushing, expressing tender protectiveness of his innocent daughter and the grief of a widower, to the stern focus of a scientist on the brink of a major discovery. Lee is in his element as the scheming head of the asylum, showing no compassion for the inmates and using them as guinea pigs in his quest for the Richter Prize (“Unfortunately, in the state of society as it exists today, we are not permitted to experiment on human beings. Normal human beings.”) Dauntingly cast alongside Cushing and Lee, Heilbron consistently holds her screen presence, transforming from a repressed young woman to a leering, murdering seductress. Also, Kenneth J.Warren gives a sympathetic performances as the escaped mental patient, Lenny. The scene where a crazed Penelope gleefully sends him to his death - after the escapee acknowledges her as a potential companion - is shocking and saddening.

The unevenness of THE CREEPING FLESH mirrors the haphazard directorial career of Francis, in stark contrast to his illustrious credits as a cinematographer. In the director's chair, Francis worked almost exclusively in horror, struggling to stretch low budgets to accommodate overambitious screenplays (on his apparent typecasting as a genre director, Francis said, "horror films have liked me more than I have liked horror films.") At least Francis enjoyed some familiar faces behind the scenes here, including photographer Norman Warwick, editor Oswald Hafenrichter - who worked on arguably Francis's finest hour, THE SKULL (1965) - and make-up artist Roy Ashton. In fact, a further nod to THE SKULL is the use of the same camera trick of shooting through the eye-sockets of the creature, but the Evil One is more bloody that the earlier example. He made numerous workmanlike pictures for Hammer and Amicus, but usually managed to infuse his assignments with stylish bursts of visual energy. Particularly memorable in this feature is the monster's huge shadow, slowly creeping up and covering the house.