THE CREEPING FLESH “Finger of Doom” 

By Dr. Abner Mality

Gothic British horror in the Hammer tradition has provided a lot of thrills and chills, even when it doesn’t come from Hammer. The legendary British studio had its rival and imitators over the years, including Amicus, who specialized in horror anthologies. Another, more obscure rival was Tigon Films, which was the creation of one Tony Tenser, a man often considered the king of British exploitation movies. 

Tigon’s output was brief, lasting less than 10 years but included some of the best English horror films ever made, such as the infamous “Witchfinder General” with Vincent Price and the moody, highly regarded “Blood on Satan’s Claw”. A very interesting article could be done about Tigon as a whole, but this time around, we will focus on their very last feature, “The Creeping Flesh”, released in 1973.

I remember TV and newspaper ads for this chiller when I was 10 years old and going into a cold sweat over them. Something about a giant walking skeleton coated in wet, raw flesh...that image stayed in my head a long, long time. I finally saw the film in the early 80’s during the great VHS boom. I was vaguely disappointed by the film because the screen time for that ambulatory skeleton was quite short. I imagined the whole movie was about it stalking the countryside and killing nubile females.
Recently, I acquired a good DVD copy for a steal and watched it again. As often happens, age lends wisdom or a reasonable facsimile thereof. There are a lot of layers to this film and a lot more going on than just a monster lumbering around. There are some fairly profound meditations on the nature of evil, madness and Victorian sexual mores. Plus, top performances from the greatest duo to ever appear in horror, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and direction from the talented Freddie Francis.
Well, then, let us delve deeply into the insanity that is “The Creeping Flesh”…

We begin as Professor Emanuel Hildern (Cushing) receives a visitor in his laboratory, a man who seems to be a young doctor. The agitated Hildern tells his visitor that he has made both a monumental scientific discovery and a terrible mistake. He has discovered that evil has an actual physical cause, almost like a virus. But he has unleashed a great source of this evil upon the world thousands of years before it should have been. He tells the story of how this happened…

After an expedition to the unexplored wilds of New Guinea, Hildern returns to his Victorian mansion and his lovely young daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron). He brings with him evidence of something that will overturn all known history of life on Earth. He has found the intact skeleton of a gigantic, obviously non-human being. This grotesque skeleton with its distorted skull was found in a layer of sediment millions of years older than any previous human ancestor...and yet it is more physically and mentally advanced than any such ancestor. It seems to resemble demonic beings known to the primitive New Guinea tribes.

The excited Hildern believes this will bring him the prestigious Richter prize among other accolades. The money accompanying the prize is much needed, Penelope tells him, as their estate is financially on the verge of collapse. Despite a tender reunion with his daughter, it’s apparent that Hildern is a very possessive father. Penelope has lived almost in total seclusion at the mansion, forbidden to go to town and also to visit a mysterious locked room upstairs. Hildern almost immediately secludes himself in his laboratory with the skeleton and his associate Waterlow, leaving Penelope isolated once more.

Hildern soon receives an urgent message from his brother James (Lee), who runs a nearby asylum for the violently insane. Emanuel’s wife Marguerite, who has been an inmate for years, has died. Emanuel has never revealed the truth about Marguerite to Penelope, who believes she died years ago. It is apparent immediately that James and Emanuel are not close at all and that James considers himself far more successful than his brother. He is also planning to try for the Richter prize, with research on mental illness that he conducted on Marguerite. He coldly tells Emanuel that he will no longer be supporting him financially.

Not only is James a cold bastard, but his asylum is a virtual Victorian house of horrors, full of screaming and laughing lunatics who receive brutal treatments like electro-shock therapy and surgical lobotomies. A homicidal maniac named Lenny has just escaped from the asylum and is now roaming free. James wants no stone unturned in not only killing Lenny, but hushing up the scandal his escape would cause.

In Emanuel’s lab, a bizarre discovery has been made. Waterlow has accidentally spilled water on the skeleton’s hand. The water causes one of the fingers to start growing a layer of raw, pulsating flesh. The finger, looking like a sausage or a rather large...ahem, member, is hacked off from the rest of the action that will lead to devastating consequences. Hildern’s discovery is now even more important. He recalls legends of the New Guinea natives telling of a buried “Evil One” who will rise from the ground when the Sky Father weeps...i.e., it rains.

The professor studies some of the finger’s fluid under a microscope and sees it swarming with strange bacteria. He wildly theorizes that this bacteria could be the biological source of evil and that it can be transmitted like a disease. Quite a speculative jump there. Hildern uses the cells to create a sort of serum that may actually work as an inoculation against evil. He injects the serum into a lab monkey and sees it calm the creature’s aggressive tendencies. Honestly, the way this poor creature is treated is pretty disturbing to watch. My sympathy for Hildern is starting to evaporate.

While her father is obsessed with his lab work, Penelope’s curiosity has gotten the better of her. She has managed to get the key to the “forbidden room” and enters it. The whole room is a shrine that Emanuel has made to Marguerite, who was a famous dancer in the Moulin Rouge. She also learns that not only was her mother committed to the insane asylum, but she has just recently passed away there. Emanuel discovers Penelope in the room and there is an explosive confrontation between the two which ends with Penelope fainting in despair. Emanuel is overcome with the madness that claimed his wife also beginning to manifest in his daughter?

The thought that Penelope might wind up a screaming lunatic leads Hildern to a drastic conclusion...perhaps the madness can be stopped with an injection of the antidote made from the skeleton’s finger. To me it seems the height of unscientific lunacy to test a serum on one’s own family based on just one positive experience only a few hours old. But this is what Emanuel does anyway. At every turn, he tightens the noose around his own neck.

He sees that he has made a horrible mistake the next morning. The monkey injected with the “antidote” has gone violently berserk and escaped from his cage, wreaking havoc in the lab. But now the poor creature lies convulsing on the floor and soon expires. Far from being an antidote to evil, the serum actually intensifies violent and sinister emotions. While Emanuel and Waterlow deal with the chaos in the lab, Penelope, already under the influence of the serum, has escaped from the house and heads into the city.

Now we get to see how good of an actresss Lorna Heilbron is. She’s been the very image of a prim, dutiful daughter so far, one that has been shielded from the “real” world, but now she’s thrust into the middle of that world and she’s in the process of becoming a completely different person. How much is the influence of the serum and how much might be the hereditary taint from Marguerite is unknown.

She winds up at a dive bar in the seedy part of town. Earlier at this same bar, the escaped lunatic Lenny went on a brawling rampage when he grabbed a prostitute working there. Lenny managed to get away once more and is still lurking in the neighborhood. But now the “awakened” Penelope appears there. It isn’t long before an arrogant young noble takes her upstairs for a bit of the old “in-out, in-out”, as Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” might have said.

Despite her new state of mind, Penelope resists the actual sex act and viciously rakes the young fop across the face. Snarling, she is giving in to her animal side. The unlucky john flees the room, telling the owner “That’s not what I paid for!” Falling deeper and deeper into madness, Penelope goes downstairs and starts dancing lasciviously for the patrons...much the same way her mother Marguerite did in her own insanity. A man violently gropes her and she shockingly responds by breaking a bottle and slashing his throat open in a bloody scene. The bar erupts in chaos and Penelope flees into the streets.

She winds up at a darkened warehouse where she tries to hide from the mob pursuing her. But the warehouse is also the hiding place of the maniac Lenny. The mute Lenny is fascinated by Penelope’s beauty and in a strangely sympathetic scene, he tries to help her hide. But the police aren’t fooled and the pair are chased to the upper levels of the warehouse. Lenny winds up hanging on for dear life from a high window. He looks at Penelope with pleading in his eyes and says the only words we ever hear him say: “ me...” 

Now we see how much the serum has affected Penelope. With a sadistic grin, she steps on the poor slob’s fingers and whacks him with a plank. The hapless Lenny falls to his death in the street below. When I first saw the movie, this was one of the scenes that stayed with me the most. Despite being described constantly as a “homicidal lunatic”, Lenny never seemed that menacing...even his brawl in the bar couldn’t have been much worse than others that took place there. And certainly a stay in James Hildern’s horrid asylum would drive most to insanity.

In one more dire coincidence in a movie full of them, Penelope is chained up by the police and taken to the very same asylum. James recognizes her immediately and learns one of his assistants has tested her blood and found it swimming with strange organisms. What exactly is going on in Emanuel’s house? James decides to return Penelope there and see what he can find out.

A flabbergasted Emanuel is relieved to see Penelope but disturbed by her condition and also the fact that she wound up in the same asylum where his former wife was incarcerated. James, being the villainous bastard that he is, takes advantage of Emanuel’s reunion with his daughter to sneak to his lab. There he is staggered to see the towering skeleton of The Evil One. Outraged,  Emanuel finds his brother in the lab and demands he leave at once or police will be called.

James coolly tells his brother that it would be best for him to keep his mouth shut or perhaps people will find out that he injected his own flesh and blood with a dangerous serum that induces madness. James has the perfect sword to hold over Emanuel’s head. Cowed by this, Emanuel backs off and when he returns upstairs to tend to an agitated Penelope, James finds and steals his notes.

Back at the asylum, James pores over the notes and then has the blood of his most violent patients analyzed. Sure enough, the “evil” organisms are there. James feels that the Richter Prize will be his, but to get absolute proof, he needs to examine the skeleton. He hires a local thug to break in and steal the grotesque artifact. By now, ominous stormclouds are rolling in. There’s going to be a hard rain…

Now we’re starting to get to the meat of the film. The thug breaks into the darkened lab but encounters the luckless Waterlow, who is quickly bludgeoned to death. The skeleton is put into its crate and laboriously hauled out to the waiting cart. On the way, a skeletal hand drops into a pool of water, where it is immersed. James is waiting in the passenger compartment of the carriage. With the crack of thunder in the sky, the carriage hurriedly heads back to the asylum.

Emanuel has entered the lab and found Waterlow’s body, as well as the missing skeleton. He immediately grabs a horse and takes off into the night in pursuit of the thief, leaving Penelope in the care of a serving lady. She uses a key she has carefully pocketed to escape and throttle the luckless servant. She is now in the grip of complete madness. And now a downpour of rain has now begun…

The carriage with James and the stolen skeleton has had an accident and the thug is crushed and helpless under it. James has escaped the crash with barely a scratch and being the compassionate fellow he is, he ignores the groans of the trapped man. The skeleton is now fully exposed to the falling downpour and James has no chance to move it. He makes off by foot to the asylum with the notes he’s stolen from Emanuel. 

A few minutes later, Emanuel himself arrives at the accident. The driver is dead. And there is no sign of the skeleton. The box is smashed and empty. Emanuel looks out into the rainy gloom and sees what looks like an enormous hooded figure trundling through the woods. The light bulb goes on in Emanuel’s head. The Sky Father has been weeping...and the Evil One now stalks the Earth. In terror, he flees back to his home.

Once there, he locks the main door and runs up to Marguerite’s “hidden” room and further locks himself in. He knows that he will be the target of the monstrous fiend he brought is looking for its lost finger, the one Emanuel so casually chiseled off earlier.

The build up in tension to the final arrival of the Evil One has been excellent. We expect to see the Devil himself appear. Once at the door of the Hildern mansion, it knocks at the door….heavily, ominously. This is a curious scene, as you would almost expect the door to be smashed down in a fury. But the monster continues to knock patiently. Until mad Penelope, her blood full of the same evil organisms coursing through the monster’s own veins, politely opens the door for it and lets the huge figure into the house. We still have not seen what is under the cloak.

At first, the Evil One crashes through the lab, looking for it’s finger. Then it ponderously stalks up the stairs to the room where it senses it’s prey. In a visceral performance by Cushing, Emanuel is sobbing in complete fear, his own mind breaking down at last. But there is no escape. His shattered mind obeys the power of the Evil One and he unlocks the door…

Now we do get a good luck at the satanic creature...and a beauty contest winner, he ain’t. The skeleton was monstrous looking enough, but now everything is covered with wet, raw flesh, full of pulsating veins. The eyes are empty sockets, but in a wild POV shot similar to the one he used in the excellent film “The Skull”, director Francis shows us what things look like from the inside of the monster’s own skull! In an additional dose of horror, we see blood dripping down into the range of vision as well.

We know what the Evil One is there for. His gigantic wet paws grab Emanuel’s hand as he whimpers pathetically...and we hear a sharp crack. The monster has gotten what he’s after and he simply turns and leaves the premises. He stalks past mad Penelope, who is now dancing mindlessly out on the lawn. After millions of years, the Evil One is loose in the world once more…

We are back where we began, with Emanuel telling his story to the young man. Only the room is no longer a lab, but the stark confines of a cell. Emanuel begs the man to help track down the Evil One and find a way to neutralize his terror. A time of great catastrophe is ready to be unleashed on the world. The young man nervously begs off and steps into the corridor...where James Hildern is waiting for him.

“The man is absolutely mad,” mutters the visitor. James smiles and says, yes, he even imagines that I am his brother. And the raving mad girl across the hall in another cell is his daughter. We see a shot of a completely animalistic and raging Penelope in that cell, almost unrecognizable as the proper young girl she once was. James says that he will use all the money from the Richter prize he has won to try and help them.

We now see the pathetic Emanuel grabbing the bars of his cell and pitifully whining “Help me...please help me...” A close up of the left hand reveals he is missing his ring finger…

What exactly have we seen? Could it be that James Hildern is right and Emanuel is insane,  his whole story utterly fantastic? Or is Emanuel’s tale right on the money and he has become a miserable victim of his own brother while evil incarnate stalks the world? Or is it somewhere in between?

The decision is up to the viewer. I choose to believe most of Emanuel’s story, mostly due to the fact of his missing finger. Although I suppose it is possible that he was crazy enough to  cut if off himself. The concept of madness is central to understanding everything about “The Creeping Flesh”. It is above all a pessimistic look at the human animal and how both evil and insanity are the driving forces of the human beast.

In actuality, the Evil One is a secondary character in the film. Emanuel says that with the Evil One alive, great catastrophes are waiting to strike the Earth, such as World Wars I and II. But how sinister is the monster? It actually kills no one. It knocks at the door of Hildern’s house almost like a neighbor and leaves Penelope untouched when it enters. Its sole violent act is taking Emanuel’s finger with almost Biblical vengeance. Didn’t the Bible itself say “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”? It seems that “a finger for a finger” should also be fair.

No, the human race is quite evil enough, it seems, and capable of self-destruction without the intervention of gods or demons. Man himself is the monster. The real fiend of the movie on the surface is James Hildern, a human reptile with no trace of conscience. We find that out early when one of the asylum lunatics makes a sudden escape and James calmly and ruthlessly shoots the madman down, telling a guard: “Don’t hesitate. Shoot!” His asylum is a house of horrors where it looks more like people are made insane instead of being treated for madness. If what we have seen in the movie is reality instead of a fantasy, then evil triumphs over good, because James gets pretty much everything he wanted.

It would seem James is the villain, but much of what happens can be laid squarely at the foot of Emanuel Hildern. He has been shown to be so obsessed with being recognized as a scientist that his common sense and family obligations have deserted him. He didn’t hesitate to have his wife permanently put in James’ asylum so she would be out of the way while he goes adventuring in New Guinea and elsewhere. It’s shown in a flashback that Marguerite was a nymphomaniac as well as violently insane, dallying with other men behind Emanuel’s back. Emanuel keeps her room as a kind of shrine to the wife he wanted, not the one he actually got. Perhaps her being sent to the asylum is just as much punishment as banishment.

And what of poor Penelope? She is restricted to her home almost like a virtual prisoner, forbidden to visit elsewhere and perhaps experience men like her mother did. This is no doubt a comment on Victorian attitudes towards women, who were seen as living dolls to be sheltered and protected. Does Penelope really have the same madness as her mother? Or is it just the pent-up sexual feelings of a lifetime exploding? Is Emanuel’s misguided shot of serum taken from the Evil One actually a liberating force?

Emanuel’s reckless injection of his daughter reveals poor scientific methodology. Rather, he’s consumed with a search for scientific glory. When he realizes that the blood of the Evil One might be a cure for evil, he mutters “white god”. No doubt an unsubtle reference to colonialism and being racially superior to the New Guinea natives. Also, he recognizes that without him digging the skeleton up, it would have lain in its tomb of rock for at least another 3000 years. By that time, society would be advanced enough to deal with the ramifications of its discovery. But he has upset the timetable and unleashed a virtual devil upon the world.

So one can see that there’s much more going on beneath the surface of this seeming Gothic horror. Many issues to ponder about the dreadful discovery of Prof. Hildern. Who is the devil? Does man even need a devil? Who is really mad and who is sane?

“The Creeping Flesh” is by no means a perfect movie. In some ways, it may not even be great. But it is thought-provoking and entertaining in equal measure. Although advertised as a monster movie, the actual monster is almost incidental to the film. And with great talents like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Freddie Francis leading the way, the movie can’t help but be entertaining.

It might even make YOUR flesh creep...