The Creeping Flesh is a strange film about the origins and nature of evil, and it is therefore a philosophical-horror that resembles Lovecraft's cosmic-terrors. It has some parallels with the story of Cain and Abel, too. As in Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein", this is a cautionary-tale: we shouldn't be blind to our own shortcomings when investigating the unknown in science. We should be certain of why we are searching-out a particular knowledge, and we should know who we are and where we stand morally in-relation to others. Frequently, we are the medium of investigation. Also, some things in nature should simply be left-alone.Cushing plays Victorian Dr. Immanuel Hildern, a museum-paleontologist who receives an ancient skeleton from New Guinea that looks almost prehuman.
The remains have an enormous cranium that looks hideous, and serves as an anthropomorphic metaphor for monstrous humanity. A legend surrounds the skeleton, that when a great rain comes it will reanimate and plunge the world into darkness (which is why the remains were sealed in a cave, away from water). Hildern suspects it is a "concentrated evil" from which he may be able to create a vaccination against evil-itself (a strange idea, that..."Evil as a disease".) It appears he has lost his wife to a malevolent-insanity, and fears his daughter will succumb to the same "evil." In some ways, this is a tale of how wrongheaded 19th century science was. Meanwhile, someone-else wants to study the skeleton...
As with most Gothic-horrors, this is a story of an aristocratic family in-decline. His half-brother, James (played icily by the legendary Christopher Lee) runs an insane asylum unethically, and there are hints that he treats his inmates to hideous experiments and torture. In the beginning, Cushing's character seems less like Lee's, but this illusion soon falls-away. From the start, it's clear that this is a family tainted with evil, and that it is dying. There is some hope early-on that Immanuel Hildern can reverse this, but he is flawed like Lee. So, what does the film say about evil? That it is ambiguous, and untouchable? That we are guided-by-fate? I think the filmmakers leave it to the audience to decide.
So, while it is hinted that the skeleton is somehow "the source of all evil...a concentrated evil," Dr. Hildern and his brother's misguided-attempts at greatness express that the evil was already within-them, well-before the introduction of the skeleton. It offers that evil is intangible, which is odd for a film that is both Gothic and yet a bit modern. Gothic-horror seems like anti-monarchist/aristocratic propaganda today, and a lot of it is--it's specific in what the evil is, so there is a contradiction within the story. Still, it fuses the Gothic and the modern well, and that's a lot harder than it sounds.
So, all-in-all, not a bad film, with some incredible exposition on how evil grows. From the scenes where Cushing accidentally spills-water on the skeleton, to the stop-motion growth of flesh on dead bones, to the robed-creature seeking Hildern and his family, this is both entertaining and eerie. Of course, the daughter is torridly-hot (and stacked) as in the Hammer films, and there is a strong sexual-tension that's both repellent and attractive. Many of the shock scenes are well-conceived and staged, including the subplot with the murderer running-amok from the asylum. By the end of the film, everyone has been touched by evil, or is dead. The inevitable destruction of the Cushing-character's family ultimately makes this a Gothic horror.
The Creeping Flesh also has a great cinematography, helped by the fact that the director Freddie Francis was a DP himself. Many of the tableaux are shot in a wonderful low-lit atmosphere, and the makeup is very good for 1973. If the film suffers from anything, it's just too-many great ideas in 94 minutes! The Sony DVD is an excellent High-Definition transfer, widescreen, but with no real extras. It was initially a bit overpriced, but worth it for such a great classic of Gothic-horror. A commentary-track would have been a good minimal addition, since Mr. Francis was still-alive when the DVD was created. He was 89 as of the original writing of this review (8/2006), and still is according to imdb. Francis also directed Day of the Triffids (1962), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Tales from the Crypt (1972), Torture Garden (1967), and The Doctor and the Devils (1985) about the murderers Burke and Hare.