Sunday, January 27, 2019

Creeping Flesh, The (1973)

... aka: El esqueleto prehistórico (The Prehistoric Skeleton)
... aka: Essência da Maldade (Essence of Evil)
... aka: Il terrore viene dalla pioggia (The Terror Comes from the Rain)
... aka: La chair du diable (The Devil's Flesh)
... aka: Nachts, wenn das Skelett erwacht (At Night, When the Skeleton Awakens)

Directed by:
Freddie Francis

Competing for the same audience as Hammer and Amicus in the 60s and 70s was a smaller outfit called Tigon British Film Productions. Founded by Tony Tenser in 1966, Tigon would produce over 20 films in a brief span of time lasting no longer than a decade. Around half of those were horror films and, truth be told, most have gotten brushed aside for good reason. Their collection is highlighted mainly by WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968), a good period witch hunt film / commentary on religious hypocrisy with a great Vincent Price performance, and The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), a creepy and atmospheric rural witchcraft tale. While other Tigon productions were generally at least watchable, most were forgettable and sometimes even outright duds, like THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968), which star Peter Cushing reputedly wasn't very fond of, and THE CRIMSON CULT (1968), which is best-known now for getting together one of horror cinema's all-time best casts yet somehow still managing to suck. The Creeping Flesh, the studio's final film as production company, is neither the best nor worst of what Tigon had on offer. Afterward, the company mostly distributed sex films until they fizzled out for good in the early 80s.

Frantic and quite possibly mad Victorian-era scientist Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing) arranges for a young assistant to meet him at his lab to continue research "of the utmost importance to the survival of the human race!" Emmanuel seems to have somehow discovered the very origin of evil, with evil itself not being an abstract but its own living organism; its own entity entirely and one that's also capable of infecting man. He then flashes back three years in an effort to explain just what he's talking about.

It's now 1893, and Emmanuel has just returned from a year-long trip to New Guinea with a strange new specimen - a complete skeleton of a primitive man - that he hopes will be the most important scientific discovery of the century. The skeleton strangely predates a neanderthal skeleton yet is much larger, with an especially huge head and rib cage, and seems to have come from a much more advanced and intelligent species. The Missing Link? Well, Emmanuel seems to believe so. He and his assistant Waterlow (George Benson) immediately get to work examining it to find out more.

While he spends almost all of his time slaving away in his lab, Emmanuel's about to face the consequences of both ignoring his responsibilities and ignoring his lovely teen daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron). He's always told Penelope that her mother, Marguerite (Jenny Runacre), had died when she was only a child. In reality, Marguerite has only recently (within the past few months) died. All this time she's been locked up at the Hildern Institute for the Criminally Insane; an institution run by Emmanuel's stuffy brother James (Christopher Lee). Fearing that she may inherit her mother's insanity, Emmanuel has not only lied to Penelope about her mother's mental illness, but has also forbidden her from talking about her, entering her bedroom or even leaving their home unless he can accompany her. She's basically been been kept locked safely away. And while he's been working on his various experiments and away on expeditions, the bills have been piling up and they may even lose their home.

Meanwhile, James and Perry (Hedger Wallace), another doctor in his employ, keep busy doing all kinds of unorthodox experiments... often on his living, screaming patients! They not only practice some primitive form of electroshock therapy at the asylum, but also keep most of the patients locked up in the cellar; treating them little better than animals. James has no problem shooting disobedient patients dead and also somehow manages to be well stocked on spare body parts to experiment on. He's working on a manuscript titled "The Cause and Prevention of Mental Disorder" that he hopes will win him the coveted Richter Prize; the same exact award Emmanuel is sure he's going to win with his discovery. But just to make sure he stands an even better chance at winning, James informs Emmanuel that he'll no longer be financing any of his future expeditions.

Late one night while attempting to clean up the skeleton, Emmanuel makes the amazing discovery that simple water can regenerate the flesh of whatever it is he's found. He cuts off a finger and then further examines both it and New Guinea folklore, drawing the conclusion that the skeleton belongs to an ancient species representing pure, undiluted evil. And if evil is something cellular that can be found in the blood, why not use the creature's blood to create an antidote to cure all of man's ills? After Penelope discovers the truth about her mother (who was a Parisian dance hall trollop) and bad memories come flooding back to Emmanuel, he decides to inject her with the "inoculation" he's created. Needless to say, that's a big mistake.

Penelope runs off to London and starts frequenting a seedy pub where she drinks, dances, fends off an attempted rape by clawing the man's face bloody and then slashes the throat of a horny sailor who makes a grab for her. She flees into the night and runs afoul of bald escaped lunatic Charles Lenny (Kenneth J. Warren). Penelope manages to kill him but is apprehended by authorities and ends up exactly where he mother ultimately did: Hilbert Institute. However, after his latest experiments have fallen short, James decides to use this as an excuse to blackmail Emmanuel and sends a thug to the home to steal the skeleton. He just picks a bad time to do so... in the middle of a thunderstorm!

This is well directed, produced and shot (by Norman Warwick), with excellent sets, costumes and period detail plus fine performances from the entire cast, with Cushing and Heilbron being especially good here. Where it's lacking a bit is in the screenplay department. While there are plenty of decent ideas here, the focus frequently shifts due to one too many competing subplots; some of which are simply more interesting than others. The big payoff at the end (in this case, the full regeneration of the creature) also feels a little bit anti-climactic, though there's an OK little twist to the tale at the very end.

The cast includes Duncan Lamont (inspector), Catherine Finn (maid), Harry Locke (bartender), Michael Ripper (guy who delivers the skeleton) and Marianne Stone (asylum worker). Roy Ashton did the make-up fx. This has been released countless times on VHS and DVD over the years (Columbia, Image, RCA, Sony are just some of the distributors), and received a blu-ray release in 2017 courtesy of Mill Creek.

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