The Creeping Flesh – UK, 1972

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The Creeping Flesh is a 1972 (released 1973) British science fiction horror feature film directed by Freddie Francis (Tales from the Crypt; The Vampire Happening; The Skull) from a screenplay by Peter Spenceley and Jonathan Rumbold.

It was produced by Michael Redbourn for World Film Services. Tigon‘s Tony Tenser was an executive producer. Director Freddie Francis replaced Don Sharp during pre-production.

The notable soundtrack score was composed by Paul Ferris (Witchfinder General; The Sorcerers; The She Beast).

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Main cast:

Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Lorna Heilbron (Symptoms).

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Plot:

Prof. Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing), a Victorian era scientist is shown in what appears to be a laboratory meeting a young doctor. Hildern excitedly tells the doctor that he needs help because he has discovered a form of evil that is real, a living being, and that he has unwittingly unleashed the evil thousands of years too soon. Hildern then recounts how his discovery was made.

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In a flashback, Hildern recounts his return in 1893 from an expedition to New Guinea where he has discovered an abnormally large humanoid skeleton. Paradoxically, the skeleton is far older than previously recovered specimens, but also much more advanced.

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Hildern hopes the discovery will earn him the prestigious Richter Prize. Hildern has little time to rejoice before receiving word that his wife, institutionalized for years, has finally died. This he learns from his brother James Hildern (Christopher Lee) who runs the asylum where Hildern’s wife had been held in secret…

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Reviews:

“Though Freddie Francis took many a directorial job as just work, it seems his heart was in this one. The Creeping Flesh beckons the glorious days of the similar Hammer and Amicus films, and includes some of his best camera set-ups — namely the use of distorted lenses to suggest a character’s descent into insanity and a point of view shot from the inside of the monster’s gooey skull.” George R. Reis, DVD Drive-In

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“This is an interesting, imaginative film, one of Freddie Francis’ best directorial efforts … Like Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969), The Creeping Flesh is an attack upon the patriarchal Victorian male, whose unshakeable faith in his own infallibility brings about the destruction of the family unit.” And You Call Yourself a Scientist!

“Absurd but persuasive horror film, quite well done in all departments.” Leslie Halliwell, Halliwell’s Film Guide 

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“Well mounted and scary, The Creeping Flesh is yet another genre film that equates unchecked female sexuality with horrific consequences, though it isn’t clear whether director Francis is condemning or supporting this notion.” TV Guide

“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.” Satanic Pandemonium

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“…does give rise to good moments, especially when Cushing injects the “evil” into his prim little daughter (Heilbron) and she is transformed into a wildly sensual image of female libido.” David Pirie, Time Out Film Guide

“Although The Creeping Flesh is unevenly paced in moments and contains a sometimes maligned plot, a close analysis reveals a film marked by an interesting use of parallel montage, subtle thematic meaning imparted in the mise en scène, and a possible social message submerged within the slightly ludicrous apocalyptic scenario, dealing with the suppression of women in Victorian England (it would be too much of a stretch to read this as feminist).” Donato Totaro, OffScreen.com

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“Cushing and Lee are their normal selves, in that you get what you expect. Cushing is torn between morality and his love of science. Lee is a straight up villain in this one, and it was cool to see him in that role and not wearing makeup or a costume that hid his menacing faces. The supporting cast didn’t offer much, but Lorna Heilbron did give some good moments before and after her insanity took hold.” Billy Dunleavy, Magazines and Monsters!

“Freddie Francis acclaimed the work of Norman Priggen in giving the film higher than usual production values for a horror movie. The sepia-toned photography is beautiful, the settings are sturdy and Hildern’s cell – a kind of white void dressed with a jumble of laboratory equipment – is an interesting abstract idea. Paul Ferris’ score uses insistent, minimal percussion to effectively fray the nerves.” David Miller, The Peter Cushing Companion

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“Despite the script’s oddity, Heilbron was terrific in the part (just as she was in Symptoms); indeed, the word was her role was expanded when the producers saw just how good she was. But the film was released at the time of maximum market saturation and hardly anyone noticed…” David Pirie, A New Heritage of Horror

“The script by Peter Spenceley and Jonathan Rumbold is arguably one of the most literate and complex to be seen in an English horror movie but simply adding layer upon layer doesn’t make the film any better to watch. The sexual undertones that run through the movie are merely hinted at and the intermingled themes of guilt, suppression and the nature of evil are all boldly introduced but never fully explored.” John Hamilton, Beasts in the Cellar: The Exploitation Film Career of Tony Tenser

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“Using a cool style, with many medium and long shots, Francis gives the picture a sense of desolation and bleakness appropriate to the kind of ‘decency’ that must be accepted if the events recounted are to viewed as disturbingly evil. The result is Francis’ most complex and revealing picture, achieving exactly the right tone for such a depressing fable about ‘Englishness’.” The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror

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“This is one of Freddie Francis’ very best efforts and it is to his credit that the wild premise becomes plausible. Lorna Heilbron should be given special mention. Her performance is the personification of liberated Victorian repression gone wild.” Uneasy Dreams: The Golden Age of British Horror Films, 1956 – 1976

“One of Francis’ best and most atmospheric horror movies. He manages to expound a complicated storyline with great clarity and his sense of visual atmosphere has never been more effective.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook

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“Quietly effective horror film with a couple of nice touches along the way, including a twist in the tail that can be traced back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Howard Maxford, The A – Z of Horror Films

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Cast and characters:

  • Christopher Lee – Dr. James Hildern
  • Peter Cushing – Prof. Emmanuel Hildern
  • Lorna Heilbron – Penelope Hildern
  • Jenny Runacre – Marguerite Hildern
  • George Benson – Prof. Waterlow
  • Kenneth J. Warren – Charles Lenny
  • Duncan Lamont – Inspector
  • Harry Locke – Barman
  • Hedger Wallace – Dr. Perry
  • Michael Ripper – Carter
  • Catherine Finn – Emily
  • Robert Swann – Young Aristocrat
  • David Bailie – Young Doctor
  • Maurice Bush – Karl
  • Tony Wright – Sailor
  • Marianne Stone – Female Assistant
  • Alexandra Dane – Whore
  • Larry Taylor – Warder #1
  • Martin Carroll – Warder #2
  • Dan Meaden – Lunatic
  • Sue Bond – Girl in Tavern

Choice dialogue:

James Hildern: “Unfortunately, in the state of society as it exists today, we are not permitted to experiment on human beings. Normal human beings.”

Penelope Hildern: “You want everybody to be a prisoner! You wanted her to be a prisoner, locked up in that dreadful place! I am nothing to you!”

Filming Locations:

Thorpe House, Coldharbour Lane, Thorpe, Surrey, England (also location for Craze, 1973)
Shepperton Studios, Shepperton, Surrey, England

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Image credits: PeterCushing.com | Magazines and Monsters!

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One Comment on “The Creeping Flesh – UK, 1972”

  1. I have never understood the love this one gets, and i am a huge fan of Brit Horror and the Cushing/Lee team especially. All these great ideas about Evil being released too early by the excavation basically ends up as the old Ghost Story of the missing finger. A hugely missed opportunity I feel.

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