“Do you believe in Evil, Doctor? I do not mean Evil as it is commonly understood. I mean Evil as a living organism; as a plague, a disease, which infects humanity…”
Director: Freddie Francis
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Lorna Heilbron, George Benson, Jenny Runacre, Kenneth J. Warren, Catherine Finn, Robert Swann, Michael Ripper
Screenplay: Peter Spencely and Jonathan Rumbold
Synopsis: Professor Emmanual Hildern (Peter Cushing) explains to a colleague his belief that “evil” is not an abstract concept, but a living organism which infects humanity—and how he came to hold that belief… Returning from a year-long expedition to New Guinea, Professor Hildern greets his daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), with affectionate pleasure, but his focus is upon his work—in particular an extraordinary find which he believes will revolutionise ideas about the descent of man, and perhaps win him the coveted Richter Prize. In his laboratory, the Professor and his assistant, Waterlow (George Benson), uncrate a humanoid skeleton that seems more advanced than its position within the rock strata would suggest; in particular, the Professor notes the size of the brain cavity. After some effort, Penelope succeeds in prying her father out of his laboratory, in order to breakfast with her. During his scanty meal, the Professor goes through his unopened mail—finding a latter from his half-brother, Dr James Hildern (Christopher Lee), informing him that his wife, Marguerite (Jenny Runacre), has died, and that as per the Professor’s instructions, the news has been kept from Penelope. The Professor calls upon his half-brother, who is the head of the Hildern Institute for Mental Disorders, and learns to his grief that Marguerite showed no improvement before her death. When the Professor reveals his fear that his wife’s condition may be hereditary, and that Penelope may therefore be at risk, Dr Hildern tells him that he has written an extensive manuscript on that subject—which he intends to submit for the Richter Prize. He also informs Emmanuel that he will no longer subsidise his expeditions. As Emmanuel drives away, an alarm sounds at the Institute, warning of the escape of a dangerous inmate… At home, the Professor is disturbed to find Penelope reading romantic fiction which she confesses she assumed must have been her mother’s; although in response to her father’s agitated questioning, she insists she has not been into Mrs Hildern’s room, which is kept locked. Penelope asks her father in turn why she may not know more about her mother, but he evades her inquiries. In his laboratory, the Professor begins to clean the skeleton with some water, beginning with its finger bones. To his astonishment, the bones themselves seem to exude flesh, which grows over that area which has been touched by the water. Using a chisel, the Professor severs the flesh-covered finger and places it in a preserving jar; it bleeds where it has been cut. The next day, Waterlow is sent to find certain of the Professor’s books dealing with folk-lore. Under the guise of assisting him, Penelope takes advantage of Waterlow’s distraction and secretes her father’s keys. With her father caught up in his research, she takes the opportunity to inspect her mother’s room, and learn its secrets… The Professor describes to Waterlow a particular legend from New Guinea dealing with a battle between good and evil at the dawn of time, and a certain “Evil One” which will one day be resurrected: he interprets this as meaning that the skeleton is the very essence of evil; that he has, in unearthing it, pre-empted its resurrection by some three thousand years. Examining the blood from the regrown flesh, the Professor discovers that it contains black cells with long filaments which, when exposed to normal blood cells, consume them. With this evidence that evil is no abstract concept, but a living organism, he begins to work feverishly on the development of a vaccine…
Comments: Of all the collaborations between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, 1973’s The Creeping Flesh is perhaps the most unjustly neglected—possibly because it was produced by Tony Tenser’s Tigon company, and might therefore be considered in some quarters a “lesser” British horror film. But although Tigon (like its confrères, Amicus and Tyburn) tends to be dismissed as a Hammer wannabe, an examination of the company’s productions reveals a collection of horror films that, if not always successful, were invariably ambitious and imaginative. And in fact, “ambitious and imaginative” is a perfect description of The Creeping Flesh, which is a film that could justly be accused of having too many ideas, without properly working out any of them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however: it leaves the viewer – and the reviewer – with a lot of room to think for themselves.
The early seventies found Peter Cushing struggling to cope after the death of his wife. Recognising that the kindest thing he could do for his friend was keep him busy and give him his own company, Christopher Lee not only encouraged Cushing to keep working, but got him involved in projects where they could work together. Late in 1971, Lee carried Cushing off to Spain, where the two co-starred in Eugenio’s Martin’s Horror Express; then it was back to England for The Creeping Flesh.
There are certain similarities between these two films beyond their casting, which may or may not be a coincidence: the screenplay for The Creeping Flesh was the work of two rookie writers, Peter Spencely, whose only writing credit this is in a career spent mostly as an editor, and Jonathan Rumbold, whose resume is longer but not much more distinguished. However, while we may fairly infer that the tyro writers were influenced by Horror Express – which likewise concerns the resurrection of an ancient evil in humanoid form, and casts Cushing and Lee as competing scientists – The Creeping Flesh puts this central concept to very different use. In fact, a more significant similarity between the two films is that both of them – Horror Express rather amusingly, The Creeping Flesh with serious intent – brilliantly exploit the audience’s pre-existing expectations of the two actors, and what sort of characters they will be playing.
Lee gets billing here, but the main focus of The Creeping Flesh is Cushing’s Emmanuel Hildern, who we first see expounding his theories upon the nature of evil—theories which have led some people to question his sanity:
Professor Hildern: “I am a scientist, not a madman!”
The narrative then flashes back three years, to Hildern’s triumphant return from New Guinea bearing a specimen that he believes will not only revolutionise evolutionary theory, but secure both fame and fortune for himself, chiefly in the form of the prestigious Richter prize.
Upon his arrival at his country house, Hildern is warmly greeted by his daughter, Penelope; but although she is thrilled (for more reasons than one, as we shall soon grasp) to have her father back after a full year’s absence, it is soon borne upon her that nothing has changed. Hildern’s attention swiftly shifts from his daughter to his precious specimen; and once this is installed in his laboratory, all thoughts of Penelope are instantly banished from his mind.
(There is a brief, humorous interlude here: one of the carriers who brings Hildern’s specimen into the house is, almost inevitably, played by Michael Ripper; and his character’s sotto voce hints about the desirability of a tip interweave with Hildern’s glorious vision of a future that includes, “The Richter Prize! – ten thousand pounds!” We should note too that Emily, the Hildern’s maid, is played by Catherine Finn, who was Michael Ripper’s wife.)
Mind you, the specimen is impressive enough to distract anyone: an intact skeleton, humanoid but both taller and more massive than that of a human being, which the size and shape of the skull indicated a very large brain. (It’s also fully articulated, but perhaps that was for security during transport?) Hildern explains excitedly to his assistant, Waterlow, that the specimen is older than Neanderthal Man, but clearly more advanced: a contradiction which challenges all aspects of current evolutionary theory.
Penelope’s first attempt to have her father join her for breakfast meets with a flat rebuff, but on the second effort he allows himself to be drawn away from the laboratory for a cup of tea.
Although these themes emerge only gradually, The Creeping Flesh is significantly occupied with the place of women in Victorian society, and male attitudes towards the female sex. In this it may have been influenced by Taste The Blood Of Dracula, which is likewise, although much more overtly, an attack upon the patriarchal Victorian male.
Here, Emmanuel Hildern is an affectionate father, clearly, but also a careless and selfish one: Penelope runs a very distant second to his work at all times, and as a consequence lives a life of disregarded loneliness and boredom. At first reunion, both father and daughter declare that they have “so much to talk about”, but none of it ever eventuates. We are, instead, given a hint of how barren Penelope’s life has been for the past year when, after inviting her to tell him all about, “What you have been doing”, he follows up by remarking: “I trust you have not neglected your music lessons?”
Music and housekeeping, indeed, seem to have been the sum total of Penelope’s lot (one wonders whether her name was a reference to The Odyssey’s archetypal left-at-home woman); and her father’s mention of the latter paves the way for her to reveal that he left her, during his absence, with insufficient funds to keep the household running, forcing her to scrimp and save, and let go two of the servants. Of course, this conversation runs in unremarked parallel with what the viewer has already grasped: that the Professor’s absence made no difference to Waterlow’s salary, or the experiments he was left to conduct, or the resources of the laboratory.
Penelope’s evident distress is enough to get even Hildern’s attention, and he moves to comfort her, assuring her that she has been everything to him, “Since your dear mother died.” His subsequent insistence that things will be different raise her hopes briefly, but they are dashed almost immediately when he adds, “This time my discoveries will bear fruit!” Penelope, we gather, has heard that one before; but the frustration and disappointment she is unable to hide is interpreted by her father as a sign that she isn’t feeling well; certainly not as any criticism of himself.
Hildern then turns his attention to the mail that accumulated during his absence, selecting one letter in particular, which brings news that shocks its reader—and the audience too, for that matter. The letter is from Hildern’s half-brother, James, and announces the death of Hildern’s wife, Marguerite…Penelope’s mother. Still more shocking is that the letter was sent from “The Hildern Institute for Mental Disorders”.
The Creeping Flesh is, despite the credits, very much Peter Cushing’s film. Conversely, the role of Dr James Hildern is really only a supporting part for Christopher Lee—or could have been. Instead (while looking extremely debonair with his moustache and goatee, albeit rather like his own evil twin), Lee makes it more than the sum of its parts; and the scene that follows, one of only two in which he and Cushing as the Hildern brothers interact, is absolutely crucial to the film.
Dr Hildern does not waste sympathy over the death of Marguerite Hildern, and cannot offer any comfort to Emmanuel, telling him that there was never any improvement in her condition. On the contrary, he adds: they were obliged to “continue treatment” right up to the time of her death; a line which will acquire a chilling resonance over the course of the film.
Emmanuel then reveals to his brother his fear than Marguerite’s insanity may be a hereditary condition and that, therefore, Penelope too may be at risk. Knowing that James is an authority, he presses him for information on his point. James is only too willing to reveal that this is precisely the line of research he has been pursuing—and that, moreover, he intends to submit his work for the Richter Prize.
This is a deliberate blow, as we soon gather; and it is followed up by a personal attack in which James expresses a lifetime of resentment. The Hilderns, after all, are not brothers, but half-brothers, sons of different mothers; it is Emmanuel who is the privileged elder son, the inheritor of the family property, while James has had to find his own way; Emmanuel, too, of whom “great things” have always been expected.
But, as James points out with venomous enjoyment, it is he who has succeeded, he who has built a career and become “an authority”, even while Emmanuel pursued his “lunatic theories” about the origins of man—during expeditions funded by James. But, James finishes coolly, he won’t be paying for any more…
Despite the blow of his wife’s death, this of course throws Emmanuel with increased fervour back into his study of the skeleton. He begins to clean his specimen, a task in which he gets no further than washing the dirt off the bones of a single finger. As he stares down in disbelief, Emmanuel sees that where the water has touched it, the skeleton itself is giving rise to living flesh, which is growing – creeping, if you will – over the bones in each direction (a simple but effective stop-motion effect), finally creating a single intact finger, complete to the fingernail.
Taking up a hammer and chisel, Emmanuel severs the finger from the skeleton for separate analysis…
Despite the seriousness of its overall narrative, The Creeping Flesh isn’t without a measure of humour—and in that respect, I challenge you not to laugh whenever the distinctly phallic severed digit is onscreen. I would suggest, however, that this is not merely a visual joke: as the story progresses, human sexuality – and its position within a debate about “good” and “evil” – becomes, thematically, increasingly important to the narrative; with the result that what starts out just as a dirty joke eventually becomes an important signifier.
While this is going on, three other subplots are unfolding. When Emmanuel gets home, he finds Penelope reading one of the penny-dreadfuls that maintained their popularity until the end of the 19th century, this one entitled simply “Romance”. This we can only take as an act of deliberate provocation of Penelope’s part, because she responds to her father’s knee-jerk condemnation of the material – “I’m not sure that I approve of that sort of literature” – by suggesting that the forbidden booklet belonged to her mother. She follows this up with a series of urgent questions: why must she never mention her mother, never go into her room? Emmanuel assures his daughter of his love for her, but evades the issues, simply asking her to trust that, “I do know what’s best.”
And while the point of this scene is to underscore Penelope’s growing sense of rebellion against her father’s interdictions, it also reveals to the viewer that during the year that Emmanuel was away from home, Penelope did not leave the house, except to walk in the garden. This was, of course, under parental dictum: one delivered without explanation.
Meanwhile, we also catch up with James Hildern as he pursues one of his subjects of research: electricity. In another of the film’s visual jokes, we find James gazing intently at a heart and an arm, suspended in tanks and pulsating in response to electrical stimulation. Hmm…now, where have we seen that before? – or at least, something very like it…
Anything but funny, however, is the earlier revelation of what James does with electricity. When Emmanuel leaves his brother’s office, he finds himself outside a room where patient strapped into a chair is wailing in pain as he is subjected to a primitive form of electroshock therapy—a revelation that becomes even more disturbing in light of James’s unemotional observation that it was necessary to “continue treatment” to the end of Marguerite Hildern’s life; almost twenty years of which were spent in confinement…
Also at the Hildern Institute, a violent psychopath called Charles Lenny has managed to escape. We cut away from the main story periodically to follow Lenny as he roams the East End, gropes – and nearly strangles – a prostitute, and smashes up a bar. This subplot is the weakest part of The Creeping Flesh, really only filler—and as such, annoying, intruding as it does upon the escalating situation with Emmanuel and Penelope.
On the other hand, the Lenny subplot does allow us to visit with James. There is a lovely Lee moment when James gets snotty with the police inspector in charge of efforts to hunt Lenny down, blaming the inefficiency of the police for the negative publicity now impacting the Hildern Institute—and ignoring the fact that the Institute’s inadequate security arrangements allowed the escape in the first place.
As to the latter, James decides to see for himself how Lenny got out, and nearly finds out more than he wanted to know when a second inmate manages to break open his cell, and half-strangles James in taking his keys from him. James, however, has come prepared, and calmly puts three bullets in the would-be escapee’s back. “That’s what you should have done to Lenny,” he tells a bandaged guard coldly.
The unnatural regrowth of flesh on the skeleton has caused Emmanuel to link his specimen to a piece of New Guinean folk-lore—except that he can’t find the relevant texts, because Penelope tidied and re-catalogued his books during his absence. Emmanuel sends Waterlow to find the relevant volumes, which presents Penelope with an opportunity: while piling books into Waterlow’s arms, she manages to take possession of her father’s keys—including that which opens the forbidden sanctum of her mother’s room…
The psychology of Penelope’s rebellion is, I think, very credible. She is, in every respect, a dutiful Victorian daughter, obeying her father no matter how senseless or frustrating his commands—even to the point of not leaving the house during the year of his absence. Furthermore, she has obeyed all her life his interdiction against speaking of her mother, or entering her room; and we have no reason to think that she has ever before made any attempt to do the latter, despite the opportunity presented by her seclusion at home.
But with her father’s return—and, more critically, her dismayed realisation that it has changed absolutely nothing—Penelope begins to push back against the unreasonable restrictions of her existence. It is an unfortunate coincidence that her first defiance of her father, in her effort to learn more about her mother, coincides with Emmanuel learning of Marguerite’s death: his increased sensitivity and the fear for Penelope that underlies it prompts him to be even more autocratic—which in turn provokes Penelope into exactly the action he most wants to prevent: a foreshadowing of the crisis upon which the plot of The Creeping Flesh turns.
In the laboratory, Emmanuel reads to Waterlow from his books all about the legend which tells of a battle between good and evil when the world was first created, and the “race of giants” from which modern people are descended. It also tells of “the Evil One”, who will walk the earth again when “the Sky God weeps”. In light of the effect of water upon the skeleton, Emmanuel interprets this as meaning that it would have been resurrected when the natural processes of erosion exposed it to the air—and the rain; but in excavating it, he has anticipated the resurrection by some three thousand years.
In fact, Emmanuel is certain that the skeleton is indeed that of “the Evil One”—and that, consequently, he has within his grasp a literal power over good and evil. Already he has a vision of himself as “a White God”, one with the capacity to investigate, understand—and banish evil from the world, thus creating a paradise on earth…
Coming back down to that earth, Emmanuel and Waterlow begin a series of experiments upon the flesh of the finger. Their first discovery is that the blood within the flesh contains abnormal cells: black and motile, with long, filament-like processes. Mixed with normal blood, some of Emmanuel’s own, the black cells surround, grasp and consume their normal counterparts—“evil” destroying “good”.
This observation prompts Emmanuel to propound a startling theory: that “evil” is no abstract concept, but a disease; one which infects humanity, as might any other disease, “like cholera or typhoid”; and that it should therefore be possible to develop a vaccine against evil.
And here we have perhaps the cleverest idea in The Creeping Flesh: one inherently absurd, yet in context quite compelling. It is not at all difficult to believe that in spite of conventional religion’s teachings about Original Sin, Victorian society might well have thought of “evil” in just such terms as these—as something “outside”, separate; something that “nice” people – middle- and upper-class people, that is – could be protected against.
Emmanuel then sets about making just such a vaccine, using heat-killed blood cells from the finger as its basis. Of course, he then needs an experimental subject…
I love The Creeping Flesh, but nevertheless there is one aspect of it that makes me cringe, and that is its subplot dealing with the unfortunate monkey that gets injected with Emmanuel’s experimental serum. This sad little creature is present from the beginning of the film, sitting in a small cage on a shelf in the laboratory; its chirrups and cries punctuate all the laboratory scenes. It is obvious from the first moment that something awful is going to happen to it, and now we know what—although we have to sit through distressing shots of the poor thing being restrained and injected first, and later watch the last gasping breaths of its life…
Mind you— If you can get beyond these upsetting scenes, you might find the ideas behind them rather eyebrow-raising. Of course, given Emmanuel’s theory of evil as disease, it is perfectly reasonable for him to test his serum on an animal—but the unavoidable inference is that “evil” operates upon animals exactly as it does within human society. As a believer in evolution, Emmanuel himself may not have any problem with this idea; but in 1894, good luck selling it to the public—or to the committee for the Richter Prize.
(The Creeping Flesh is not the only film to stick a toe into these curious theological waters: the Spencer Tracy version of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, a film otherwise framed within standard Christian doctrine, goes it one better by having Jekyll conduct experiments, the implication of which are that apes have souls—although there I suspect it was simply a case of the screenwriters not thinking things through…)
When sufficient time has passed, Emmanuel examines the blood of the vaccinated monkey, and is delighted to see what he interprets as his serum having created “a protective film” around the monkey’s cells. He then adds blood from the finger to the sample, to discover whether this film can, “Withstand the forces of undiluted evil.” Watching down the microscope, Emmanuel sees the monkey’s blood cells resisting attack by the filaments of the “evil” cells—he thinks. A second glance at the blood-slide, offered to the viewer some time later, shows that the vaccine has slowed but not prevented the process of destruction: we watch as the black cells engulf their normal counterparts…
While these laboratory scenes have been unfolding, we have had periodic cutaways to a nervous but determined Penelope, as she penetrates the forbidden sanctum of her mother’s room. The first thing that she observes is a framed poster advertising “La Belle Marguerite” at the Folies Bergère; the second, that the room is just as it must have been when her mother was last in it, with dresses and shoes left lying carelessly around. At first Penelope is delighted with its false but seductive impression that her mother has just stepped out: she caresses a dress on a stand, handles her mother’s powder-puffs, examines her parents’ framed wedding-photographs, plays a few notes on a piano, before kneeling down to play – as if she were still the little girl she was when she last saw Marguerite – with a foolish puppet-toy that sits on her mother’s bureau. It is then that she receives a devastating shock: on the table next to the toy is a newspaper dated some twenty years earlier, reporting that “famous music hall artiste” Marguerite Hildern had been committed to an asylum; and beside it is James’s letter to Emmanuel, announcing Marguerite’s death only four months before…
Having left his experiments for the day, a deeply contented Emmanuel is going upstairs when he hears what at first seems like ghostly music: “Marguerite!” he whispers in an anguished voice; rushing up to her room after a moment of frozen disbelief. Of course, it is Penelope he finds there—clad now in her mother’s daring red dress, and playing her mother’s piano; her hair down, as Marguerite wore hers.
“How dare you?” he begins, but Penelope’s anger and resentment surpass even his own. She throws a range of accusations at him, not the least of which, with her discovery of this perverse shrine to a still-living woman still fresh, is that her father never really loved her; that he had room for only one woman in his heart. And side-by-side with her sense of rejection sits the terrible reality of her “dead” mother: “She was a prisoner—like me.”
The Creeping Flesh is full of images of imprisonment: iron bars and locks and chains abound, in a narrative that encompasses both the literal imprisonment of James Hildern’s patients (none of whom we are given any reason to believe find any release but death) and Penelope’s dutiful immurement under her father’s roof. That the latter is, in some measure, self-inflicted speaks to some of this film’s deeper themes regarding the position of women in society and the male abuse of power, which become increasingly prominent in light of Penelope’s similarly increasing identification with Marguerite.
To us, the viewers, Penelope’s outpouring of anger and resentment is more than reasonable: it’s perfectly justified in terms of what we have learned of her stifling and lonely existence, even if the logic of the accusations she throws at her father is more emotional than literal. This is, after all, a young woman who has just discovered that her father has been lying to her almost her entire life; that her mother spent twenty years locked up in an asylum; that there was a darker purpose to the isolation and ignorance imposed upon her, one inevitably justified as “for your own good”.
Emmanuel, however, in the face of his daughter’s impassioned outburst, sees neither reason nor justification. What he sees is incipient insanity…
Here we get an extended flashback to the life of La Belle Marguerite: basking in applause and admiration, surrounded by men—but with Emmanuel Hildern at her feet, offering marriage…
(This sequence is critical to the film, and we shall consider it in more detail presently; but it is also The Creeping Flesh’s one significant artistic failure. Though it may have shocked English sensibilities, the Folies Bergère set a high standard for its performers; and no dancer as thoroughly bad as Marguerite – whose “act” consists of her waving her arms and legs around and twirling her skirt – would have been permitted within its doors.)
But Marguerite, we gather, could not give up her old life—and its many other men. We see her moving from lover to lover, even as she is seized by the first symptoms of her crumbling sanity; until finally she must be confined. We last see her being dragged roughly into a cell, crying out despairingly, “Help me, Emmanuel!”
And now—now Penelope is showing the same signs…
Emmanuel does not hesitate: he returns to the laboratory, and prepares another sample of his vaccine; and – explaining that, “I wanted to protect you” and “I thought it was for the best” – he injects it into his daughter…
The next morning, Waterlow enters the laboratory to discover a scene of chaos. The monkey’s cage has been torn open, the laboratory itself is in ruins, and the monkey lies dying in the middle of its own path of destruction. The horrified scientist calls out for Emmanuel, who stares around at the wreckage in dismay and growing terror:
Waterlow: “The serum! Thank God we didn’t use it on a human being!”
We then spend some time following the fugitive Penelope, clad once more in her mother’s red dress, as she wanders with strange delight around the dives of the East End. In a pub, where she samples cheap gin, she attracts the attention of a slumming young toff, who thinks he spots fresh meat. Paying off the publican of the ‘Blue Anchor’, he manoeuvres Penelope upstairs into a bedroom kept for just such occasions—and there gets a little more, and less, than he bargained for.
Taking Penelope’s uncomprehending recoil, her shy covering of her cleavage, as an act – or rather, not caring whether it is really an act or not – he forces her to the bed and begins tearing at her clothes—only to flee the room in pain and shock when Penelope, teeth bared and snarling, all but rips his face off.
The sound of piano music draws Penelope downstairs again. (At this point we discover that she is indeed her mother’s daughter, inasmuch as she too is a terrible dancer.) But violence again erupts when a drunken man lays hands upon her: Penelope smashes a bottle and turns on him, slashing open his throat—
—and so finds herself on the run from an angry mob and the police alike; finally taking refuge in an abandoned warehouse that just happens also to be the chosen hiding-place of Charles Lenny. Confrontation with Penelope ends with Lenny plunging to his death out of a window; while Penelope herself is finally overpowered, put in manacles, and transported to – where else? – The Hildern Institute for Mental Disorders.
James, meanwhile, is having trouble wrapping up the research project that is supposed to win him the Richter Prize, chiefly because to do so he would have to find a way to “artificially induce insanity”—and induce it in a previously normal human being…
Say what you like about James, but at this point we discover that his ideas are sufficiently advanced for him to have at least one female doctor working at his institute! She interrupts to tell him that Lenny is dead; that the woman found with him has been brought in as a patient; and that she, the doctor, has prepared a slide of the woman’s blood—which he should see for himself. Sure enough, there are strange, black, filamented cells present…
James recognises the patient, of course, and carries Penelope – still in manacles – back to her father’s house—and while she is being put to bed, he makes it his business to invade Emmanuel’s laboratory, examining the skeleton, reading his experimental notes—and although he does not entirely grasp the situation, he sees enough to understand that his brother has done by accident exactly what he has been seeking to do in his own research, and that Emmanuel has in his possession everything that he, James, needs to secure the Richter Prize.
Emmanuel is outraged by James’s invasion of his laboratory and by his demands, but James has the ace up his sleeve of Penelope’s condition—threatening to ruin Emmanuel by revealing that he experimented upon his own daughter.
They are interrupted by Penelope’s screaming. Emmanuel rushes out, leaving James free to purloin his notes—
—Emmanuel’s notes: he doesn’t have those which Emmanuel dictated to Waterlow, wherein his theory about the nature of the skeleton, and the effect of water upon it, were recorded. James has already set his assistant to take blood samples from all the patients at the institute, a test which has confirmed that the black cells are found naturally only in those individuals with a history of extreme violence. This is satisfactory, as far as it goes, but there are puzzling gaps in the narrative—all of which leads James to conclude that what he really needs to do is get his hands on the skeleton…
Emmanuel and the housekeeper, Emily, are both fully focused on Penelope, but the unfortunate Waterlow wanders in just as James’s hired goon is helping himself to the skeleton—and gets his head beaten in for his pains. His cries distract Penelope’s watchers, and give the girl a chance to snatch at the key to her room. By the time Emmanuel gets it away from her, the skeleton is gone—but not without having one bony hand trailed through an artificial pond on its way to the carriage at which James is waiting. Meanwhile, thunder rumbles as a storm begins to threaten…
Emmanuel arrives just in time to see the carriage rolling away. His discovery of Waterlow’s grim fate delays him only momentarily, as he saddles a horse and goes in pursuit of the thieves, whose carriage is travelling at dangerous speed over dark and winding roads—with predictable results. James is uninjured, but his goon / driver is pinned under the wreckage. Worried, we feel, considerably less about that than about the need for a new way of transporting the skeleton, James hurries from the scene—leaving the skeleton exposed to the night, and to the rain that is just starting to fall…
So yes, The Creeping Flesh is, at last, “a monster movie”; but its monster – despite being “the very essence of evil” – is so not the point, that the sequence which follows is more in the nature of a delightful bonus, than an integral part of the plot. James had thrown a hooded cloak around the skeleton in an effort to disguise it, and when the rain leads to the Evil One being up and around, the result is a fair representation of the Grim Reaper: an ominous figure with a face of horror hidden by its cowl. Yet what follows is every bit as funny as it is horrifying—chiefly because of the Evil One’s habit of waving its mutilated left hand around, in what it becomes impossible not to read as a comic inversion of the standard ‘finger’ gesture.
The pursuing Emmanuel finds the wreck of the carriage—and sees a talk, cloaked figure in the distance. It sees him, too—and begins to move slowly but purposefully towards him, as he flees in terror…
James arrives back at the scene with a carriage and his assistant, to find the driver dead and the skeleton gone. “Emmanuel!” he mutters of the latter (although with a distinct sense of I-don’t-know-how-youse-dunnit-but-I-know-youse-dunnit), and sets off back to his brother’s house, where Emmanuel is frantically locking doors and windows in what he must know is a futile gesture—
—particularly with Penelope on the premises. Having taken advantage of her father’s absence to strangle the unfortunate Emily and reclaim the key, she is out of her room when the Evil One arrives, its shadow looming unnaturally large over the Hildern house; and when it knocks politely on the front door – no, really – naturally, she lets it in…
Smashing sounds in the laboratory draw Emmanuel out of Marguerite’s room, where he has been cowering. The Evil One is in there, searching for its missing finger: a search doomed to failure, as we know, and as it eventually discovers, since after locking up the house Emmanuel burned the finger in the laboratory’s small fireplace. Not finding what it came for, the Evil One pursues Emmanuel upstairs, where to his horror, he finds himself compelled against his will to unlock the door.
(Freddie Francis’s direction of The Creeping Flesh is on the whole low-key, in fact a little too much so, with too many static head-shots; but here he allows himself one visual flourish here, a reproduction of the famous moment in The Skull – which he also directed – with Peter Cushing framed in the empty eye-sockets of an approaching menace.)
Emmanuel backs away as the enormous, terrifying figure looms over him—but it only wants for it came for, or at any rate a replacement: Emmanuel screams in pain as the Evil One seizes his left hand…
Quite a reasonable chap, in fact, this “essence of evil”; leaving us to draw the inevitable conclusion that this film’s real monsters are all in human form; and even then, they’re not necessarily who we most suspect. James Hildern – a tyrant and a sadist, utterly without ethics, either personally or professionally – is at least a monster in plain sight; Emmanuel, in his inability to recognise his own motives, is the truly dangerous one.
The Creeping Flesh is, we are now reminded, a story told in flashback; and at this point we return to Emmanuel as he concludes his tale, warning that the Evil One is now let loose upon the world, and that great disaster – wars, diseases – will be the inevitable consequence, unless someone helps him to stop it.
Emmanuel’s would-be colleague gives him a long look—and then shakes his head and turns his back upon him, closing behind him as he leaves the door of the cell in which Emmanuel is now confined…
…at the Hildern Institute for Mental Disorders.
There is a clue to this denouement at the outset of The Creeping Flesh, if we’re paying attention: the film’s first line of dialogue – “Someone to see you, Professor” – is spoken by an off-camera Christopher Lee. At the time this means nothing, of course; and by the time it does, we’ve forgotten that detail; but in retrospect, it is devastating.
The overarching question raised by the film’s concluding revelation is, Exactly how unreliable a narrator is Emmanuel Hildern? It is certainly his story, told from his own perspective: is it then the truth? – or are these the ravings of a madman, hopelessly insane, as his doctors finally conclude? – or, perhaps, something in between?
I alluded at the outset to the way in which the casting of Peter Cushing in The Creeping Flesh plays upon our expectations, not least by placing him in opposition to Christopher Lee at his coldest. The result is that viewer is lured into misplaced sympathy with Emmanuel Hildern, who at the outset seems like your standard absent-minded professor: well-meaning if a bit misguided in his work; affectionate but distracted when it comes to his daughter. But then come the twin climaxes of Penelope’s discoveries about her mother, and Emmanuel’s reaction to her outburst, and everything is turned on its head.
At a superficial glance, The Creeping Flesh seems just one more amongst all too many stories to equate sexuality – specifically, female sexuality – with evil; but a closer examination reveals that something different, and much more interesting, is going on here. This is, rather, a dissection of male sexual panic, of the punitive male response to female sexuality which refuses to stay within prescribed – and narrow – boundaries.
Penelope’s invasion of the forbidden room jolts Emmanuel out of the false memories represented by the platitude, “Your dear mother”, and gives us a glimpse of the repressed reality. We are only once shown Emmanuel and Marguerite together: he waiting meekly in his wife’s dressing-room as, laughing, she fights off her grabby admirers; then worshipfully kissing her cheek and caressing her hair as, disregarding him, she admires herself in the mirror. The distance between this and the romantic idealisation represented by Marguerite’s bedroom / shrine is perhaps a hint that we should be chary of taking Emmanuel’s version of events at face value. Furthermore, most of what we are told about Marguerite comes in the form of a flashback within a flashback—one which includes “memories” of events at which Emmanuel was not present—and therefore may not have happened at all, or at least not as we are shown it.
With this in mind, that brief tableau in the dressing-room, with its humble, worshipping Emmanuel, so different from all the other men who pursue Marguerite, seems particularly suspicious. Given what we learn of Emmanuel’s capacity for self-delusion, it is not difficult to imagine him feeling compelled to throw the twin cloaks of romantic love and marriage over his own sexual desire for Marguerite. The preservation of her room – a monument to a dead woman not actually dead, and who in some respects never existed – represents this same twisting of an unpleasant truth into a comforting illusion. Emmanuel forbids Penelope to enter her mother’s bedroom not to protect her, but so that he can maintain the fantasy he has built up for himself: one that makes him the victim, rather than the woman who for twenty years has been left to the tender mercies of James Hildern.
Emmanuel’s – memories? imaginings? – of Marguerite show her dancing, drinking, taking lover after lover—giving herself over to physical excess—until her sanity begins to crumble, and she must be locked away. This may be how it happened, but we have no direct evidence it was so; and in fact, a much more sinister reading of the situation is possible.
The state of medicine and the law in the 19th century made it terrifyingly easy to have someone committed against their will, and with so few legal rights even at the best of times, women were particularly vulnerable. Any female behaviour deemed “inappropriate” by society at large might be interpreted as a sign of mental imbalance. It was this way of thinking that led to the routine institutionalisation of new mothers suffering post-natal depression—many of whom, like Marguerite Hildern, never came home again, but spent the rest of their lives in “treatment”. In this context, and at a time when it was widely believed that not only did “good” women not desire sex, but that they lacked the physical capacity to do so, it is not difficult to believe that a woman indulging in a series of sexual affairs might indeed be judged “insane”. For a serial cuckold with a doctor for a half-brother, one with his own mental institution, retribution was only too easy—and, moreover, a passive-aggressive form of retribution that allowed the man dealing it out to excuse it as “for her own good”, and in this way maintain the necessary image of himself as a good man and a loving husband.
If we admit these doubts about the relationship between Emmanuel and Marguerite, it throws a new light on that between Emmanuel and Penelope—and upon Emmanuel’s terror that his daughter might “inherit her mother’s illness”: that is, become a sexual being. Under the guise of “protecting her” from anything which might “cause her distress”, Emmanuel has kept Penelope in near isolation, forbidding her to leave the house and controlling every aspect of her life even during his own absence. There is literal as well as figurative truth in Penelope’s accusation that her father wanted to imprison her as he did Marguerite; not to mention an awful irony, one as painful as it is funny, in the lengths to which this scientist, professedly dedicated to the increase of mankind’s knowledge, will go to preserve his daughter’s ignorance.
Confronted by Penelope in her mother’s room, wearing her mother’s clothes—seeing in her discoveries the loss of both her “innocence” and his control over her—Emmanuel’s panic is, almost literally, biblical. He rushes into an action intended to protect her from the contaminating influence of her “carnal knowledge”, injecting her with his serum, which he believes to be a protection against evil, but which is instead the essence of evil itself—thereby bringing about the very outcome he most fears.
(This plot-point puts me very much in mind of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, Rappacini’s Daughter, in which a man keeps his daughter in a state of perpetual virginity by making her touch poisonous.)
The Creeping Flesh explicitly contradicts Emmanuel’s conflation of sex and evil. Rather, the screenplay links exposure to “the essence of evil” with violence, with James and his assistants finding the black cells occurring naturally in the blood of dangerous psychopaths. Likewise, having been injected with the cells, Penelope is only confused and frightened by the sexual advances of the men in the bar—hardly surprising, given her upbringing, though we note that her “evil” awakening seems not to have given her any actual “carnal knowledge”—but her response in both cases is an explosion of savagery. This detail positions “evil” not as “something out there”, as Emmanuel would argue, but as something that was in some people all along; which, alas, seems only too true.
Given what we learn about Emmanuel over the course of the film, we are hardly surprised at him being led astray in this manner by his prejudices and fears; but beyond this there is another reason for his false conclusions. Emmanuel is progressively exposed to us as both a bad husband and a bad father, but there is a third failure of which he is also guilty, one which some of us might consider every bit as serious:
Emmanuel is a very bad scientist.
The laboratory scenes of The Creeping Flesh are one of this film’s many pleasures, but the “science” which Emmanuel conducts during them is appalling. Using only one test subject – and that one not human – and never repeating an experiment, he leaps from conclusion to conclusion with dismaying rapidity; while his triumphant announcement that his vaccine does indeed protect against the “infection” of evil is based upon one five-second glance down a microscope—when, as we, and he, learn the hard way, even a few hours’ observation of the unfortunate monkey would have shown him his error.
And while I certainly don’t want to make any excuses for James, we do at least find him worrying over the issue of a lack of proper controls for his experiments, whereas Emmanuel never gives a thought to this most basic of scientific procedures. No wonder, then – as we are informed in the film’s blackly humorous coda – out of the two competing Hildern brothers, it is James who finally wins the Richter Prize.
(Mind you— By “a lack of proper controls”, what James means is “a lack of sane human beings to experiment on”!)
Yet it is upon this wholly inadequate basis, these conclusions drawn from false premises, that Emmanuel pumps his “vaccine” into his own daughter.
The opening credits of The Creeping Flesh play over a macabre painting, one representing a flesh-eating skeleton-demon, with the corners of the image filled with severed fingers and fingerless hands. Yet these are not the most disturbing thing about this painting; not after we understand that the artist is Emmanuel Hildern. Rather, this is a detail tucked within the framework of the skeleton’s incomplete rib-cage, which shows a girl in a nightgown, dancing.
This is, except for one brief glimpse, how we last see Penelope—dancing in the night on her father’s lawn, after she invites the Evil One into the house. There is an extra detail in the painting, however: Penelope herself is clad in the traditional Victorian nightgown, solid from neck to toes; whereas her counterpart, rendered by her father, is wearing a flimsy sheath through which her naked body is clearly visible.
The final moments of The Creeping Flesh ask the question, Is Emmanuel Hildern a madman? – to which the correct answer would seem to be, yes—and he always was.
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This post is part of the B-Masters’ tribute to Peter Cushing.