First things first: the title is slightly misleading.
When I was a kid, some of my favorite horror movies were the ones about nasty shapeless monsters. My very favorite, believe it or not, was Beware! The Blob; but anything involving living ooze immediately captured my imagination. I used to scan the TV Guide looking for The Blob, X — the Unknown and The H-Man, or any other film that promised some icky fun. I was very disappointed by The Green Slime, which turned out to have very little actual slime in it.
Then one day I saw the TV previews for The Creeping Flesh. The title and the preview both convinced me that the movie was about a sticky mass of meat and blood that came crawling off a skeleton to devour people. Perfect! I thought. Plus, it starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee; how much better could it get?
That initial viewing, way back in the 1970's, began my love-hate relationship with Creeping Flesh. At first I was a little upset: there was no actual blob-monster in it, and the flesh could only be charitably described as "creeping". But once I'd accepted the movie for what it was (on later viewings), I got to like it. Still later, I rejected it once again, because of what I felt was its simplistic take on "good" and "evil"... not realizing that it was actually a satire. Now, seeing it as an adult on a fine new DVD transfer, I realize that some of the things I found extraneous or silly are really integral parts of the movie as a whole. I find that I enjoy The Creeping Flesh much more now than I did when I was a kid.
One of the many ingredients in the complex plot of The Creeping Flesh is the rivalry between two brothers, both scientists in late-19th-century England: Peter Cushing plays Emmanuel Hildern, an anthropologist, and Christopher Lee plays his icy brother James, who runs a mental institution. Both men are engaged in research they hope will win them the prestigious Richter Prize, though their motivations are very different. Emmanuel sees the prize as a way to validate his life's work, and a way to escape the the poverty his lack of practicality has reduced him to; while James wants the money, the power and the prestige. At first, it's easy to classify the Hilderns respectively as the "good" brother and the "bad" brother: Emmanuel is apparently a kindly and well-intentioned scatterbrain, while James has used his position to test drastic and hideous "treatments" on his inmates. Emmanuel seems completely unworldly, concentrating on his scientific expeditions while neglecting the running of his house. He depends for support on his long-suffering daughter Penelope, and on money he gets from the very worldy (and consequently far more successful) James. James, on the other hand, is a cold and ruthless bastard of the sort Christopher Lee plays so very well.
Emmanuel has just returned from his latest expedition, a trip to New Guinea which has resulted in what he claims is a spectacular find. However, as soon as he arrives home he faces a set of bitter disappointments. First, he faces the consequences of his neglect of his own household: his daughter, whose responsibilities have made her a virtual prisoner in the house for the last year, simply can't continue to manage things, because there is no more money. Next, Emmanuel receives a letter from James, callously informing him that his wife, a patient of his institution, has died. Emmanuel keeps this news from his daughter, who believes her mother is already dead. Then, once Emmanuel goes to James to deal with the business of his wife's death, James tells him he will no longer finance his ridiculous jaunts to the far corners of the world.
It's not difficult to sympathize with poor Emmanuel as these events unfold. We've had little reason to think of him as anything other than a decent (if fallible) man, and an inquisitive scientist intent on improving the world through honest inquiry. His irresponsibility seems excusable when we see his obvious delight in his research. Plus, he's played by Peter Cushing, who could make even the vilest characters seem sympathetic. But then, we start to understand more about the Hildern brothers, and our sympathy wanes a bit.
First of all, it becomes clear that Emmanuel's wife's "insanity" wasn't insanity at all, or at least not insanity as we now know it. She had been a dancer, a woman of "loose moral character" by the standards of the era; by the then-current definition, any woman with a healthy interest in her sexuality was indeed "insane". It also becomes clear that there is a subliminal connection between Emmanuel's haste to shut away his wife and the way in which he's shut away his daughter in his house. In fact, there's a young doctor in Vienna who would take an enormous interest in the situation... (while on a symbolic level, we should take note that Penelope was the name of the patient and long-suffering wife in Homer's Odyssey, which [if I may mix my myths] gives a particularly Oedipal feeling to Emmanuel's homecoming).
And then, there's Emmanuel's latest experiment.
Emmanuel has brought back with him from New Guinea a skeleton of an enormous bipedal creature (I'll ignore the fact that the skeleton is complete, which is miraculous, and fully-articulated, which is impossible; as we'll see shortly, this specimen has certain other miraculous properties beside which all others seem trivial). This skeleton was unearthed from an ancient rock stratum that was thrust up near the surface; from the evidence provided by other fossils found in this stratum, Emmanuel estimates this ancient hominid to be considerably older than the oldest known proto-man. And yet the specimen seems considerably more advanced than it had any right to be. To explain this odd discrepancy, Emmanuel relies on a disappointingly sentimental and unscientific source: the local New Guinea folk legends. This practice is actually perfectly believeable: there were plenty of scholars of the time who sought to explain new discoveries by parallels to, for example, Biblical stories and prophecies. And, unfortunately, there still are. The really disturbing thing is that in this case the myths turn out to be accurate: the stories speak of a war between giant creatures of good and evil, and of a time in the far future when the evil would awaken when "the Sky Father weeps". When Hildern begins to clean his specimen, he gets a clear idea of what this prophecy might mean: on exposure to water, the fossil bones begin to re-grow flesh and blood.
(You now see what I meant by "miraculous". How does this flesh grow? Where did it come from? What is it made out of? WHere is it getting its nourishment? And if anyone needed any more evidence of the connection between Evil and Sea Monkeys, well... here it is!)
Fortunately, Hildern has begun his cleaning with a very small portion of the skeleton — the middle finger of one hand. When he sees the tissue beginning to regenerate, he cuts off the finger before more of the creature can grow back. Examination of the tissue reveals curious (and predatory) black blood cells, which overwhelm any other cells they come into contact with. Emmanuel speculates these black cells may be nothing less than the biological source of evil.
Again, it's not really surprising that a late-19th-century scientist might think this way. Remember: germ theory, the idea that diseases might be caused by microorganisms, was still controversial at the time The Creeping Flesh takes place; and on the other hand, an orderly, mechanistic and... well... moral view of the physical universe was still prevalent in the scientific mainstream, and would remain so until the revolutionary discoveries in physics that came in the early 20th century upset the orderly, classical models. So we can easily imagine a man like Emmanuel excited by the notion that germ theory might be used to explain — and defeat — evil. And we've already got a good idea of what a man like Emmanuel might consider "evil" to be.
Emmanuel decides to use the reconstituted "black blood" to create a vaccine against evil. He tests his vaccine on a laboratory monkey (though I don't know how it would possible to detect good or evil in a monkey, when such abstract concepts are supposed to be human attributes by definition); when the monkey appears to have accepted the vaccine with no ill effects, Emmanuel is particularly anxious to try it on his daughter. Penelope has been showing signs of curiosity about her mother, and her mother's way of life, and this has caused Emmanuel to break out in a cold sweat.
By this point, our sympathy for Emmanuel is strained at best. We know exactly what Emmanuel is trying to protect his daughter from: the "insanity" that her mother suffered from. When he decides to "protect" her by experimenting on her, and with a decidedly dodgy vaccine at that, it really doesn't matter how much we might understand his reasons for doing so. What he's doing is simply wrong.
To make matters worse, what he's given her is not a vaccine at all. Rather than stimulating the immune system to resist evil as a biological agent, Emmanuel's serum turns poor Penelope into a sociopath. She escapes from the house dressed in her mother's slatternly dance-hall clothes, and the viewer might suspect that the movie was about to confirm Emmanuel's reactionary fears. In fact, Penelope is misleading our expectations: she dresses and behaves like a slut to attract men's attention, whereupon she turns on them with homicidal fury. This "evil" takes no pleasure in sex, but rather uses other people's weakness as a lure. She's become something much more terrifying than Emmanuel could have imagined.
And when poor raving Penelope ends up in the hands of brother James at the mental institution, things start to become really interesting. James begins to see some useful applications for Emmanuel's work in his own quest for the Richter prize... It all ends up in the best and best-remembered part of the film, as James attempts to steal the skeleton — as a pouring rainstorm begins...
Among the many delightful ironies of the screenplay, my favorite is the fact that the Evil about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world is already present in the men who do the actual unleashing. It may seem more obvious in the character of James, the unscrupulous and cold-hearted torturer who will do anything for power and gain. But it is in fact Emmanuel — sweet and good-natured Emmanuel, whose name ("God-is-with-us" in Hebrew) was said in the Old Testament to be the name of the coming messiah — who turns out to be the bigger villain. His well-intentioned experiments, meant to rid the world of evil (or at least his idea of evil), have loosed a demon on the world. Having done so, and having realized he's done so, he runs away. His continual refusal to take responsibility for anything until it is far too late results in the deaths of innocent people.
And as for the Evil itself -- I think we are supposed to infer that the barbarity and bloodshed of the 20th century, culminating in the building of the atomic bomb and the escalation of the arms race by men very much like James and Emmanuel, will be brought by this horrible thing that's been released to walk the earth. But this, too, is misdirection -- the film's already shown us the potential for this kind of evil in the characters of the two brothers. Through a combination of action and inaction, the Hildrens have merely allowed the evil to spread a little more easily. And when the shambling, reconstituted thing shows up on Emmanuel's doorstep, it shows a peculiar Old-Testament kind of morality: it's only come for the finger Emmanuel owes it. Of course, Professor Too-Little-Too-Late has destroyed the finger, so the Thing goes back to the principal of Biblical vengeance: "an eye for an eye..."
So we have an Evil that doesn't behave in a particularly evil fashion, at least by comparison to the non-supernatural agencies that bring it back to life. In fact, I don't really see the Evil as being a symbol of evil at all. If you'll allow me to get even more pretentious than usual for a moment, I think it's a symbol of male horror in the face of female sexuality. Something enormous, powerful and deeply threatening is about to awaken from its long years underground. Emmanuel and James represent opposite but complementary aspects of Victorian male attitudes toward women — one apparently a "protector", the other a "punisher", but both equally oppressive. It's their own actions, though, which unleash their worst nightmare.
Emmanuel is not only responsible for giving his daughter the lethal "vaccine": he's also responsible for the form Penelope's "madness" takes. On the outside, "Evil Penelope" is the embodiment of Emmanuel's fears, but on the inside she's as puritanical as he is. Both aspects come directly from him; Penelope herself never really appears as an independent character, her personality having been destroyed long before the movie beings. Her transformation makes me think of something I wrote years ago on the subject of Bram Stoker's repressed sexuality, and its effect of the writing of "Dracula": you may bury your desires if you want, but they will eventually break out of their coffin... and what emerges will be much darker and more dangerous than what went in.
Some might object that the creature's severed finger, implying castration, makes the Evil into a male figure. I don't agree. There is really nothing to prove that the Evil is specifically male. Quite the opposite: when the creature goes around waving its bloody socket in what Lyz at And You Call Yourself a Scientist? calls "a comic inversion of the standard 'finger' gesture", it seems to be giving a delightfully tasteless "fuck you" to the men who tried (and failed) to take away its power. And then, of course, it does its own symbolic castration, leaving Unmanuel emmanned. Unmanned. Emmanuel unmanned.
Of course, if this is a fair reading of the film, then I'm a little disturbed that it's the punishing James who has the last laugh. But hey: I'm an on-line amateur film critic: I'm sure I'll think of a good bogus excuse at some point. Then I can post it and make it seem like I knew what I was talking about all along. Better still: I can be like James Hildern and find somebody else's brilliant work to plagiarize as much as possible.
But in the meantime, not having a suitable conclusion, I can sum up with an atrocious pun: Hildern shouldn't play with Dead Things.