Professor Emmanuel Hildren (Peter Cushing) relates the tale of how he came to believe that evil is a real entity, like a disease, which can be cured. Three years ago he had returned from an expedition to New Guinea with his prize find: a huge skeleton which he considered as valuable as a fully preserved Neanderthal fossil. He lived with his daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), but was too busy to notice that most of the staff at their mansion house had left because he had been away for so long their money was running out. Catching up with his mail over the breakfast table, Emmanuel learns from a letter sent by his half brother James (Christopher Lee) that his wife has recently died in his asylum - but he had told Penelope she had died some years before...
With a plot best described as "busy", The Creeping Flesh was scripted by Peter Spenceley and Jonathan Rumbold, and arriving as it did near the end of the British horror cycle of the fifties, sixties and seventies, is seen by many as something of a swan song of the era. The film at times appears to be following three separate stories at once, although not to its detriment, and indulges in Gothic sensibilities with its twisted family relationships and guilty secrets mixed with a more modern take on movie monsters, with a highly unusual, if poorly explained creature to enliven the last act. It's as if they were aware it was the end of the line and determined to pack in as much mayhem as possible.
Emmanuel still wants to keep Penelope's mother's state hidden from his daughter, but goes along to the asylum to meet with James, who wants to use her case history for his theories, which he is writing down to submit to an awards board which offers a handsome financial reward. It just so happens that Emmanuel is hoping to win the money for himself, as he particularly needs it, and it's the giant skeleton that he believes will secure it for him. As if that weren't enough, a homicidal maniac called Lenny (Kenneth J. Warren) has now escaped from the asylum and is running free through the countryside; we observe how much James cares for his patients when he casually shoots one of them dead for trying the same trick.
So we can see who is the sympathetic brother and who is the morally dubious one, but there's more to come. Actually, there's so much going on that Lee hardly appears during the first hour (that's two thirds of the movie), because Emmanuel is worried that Penelope will contract the same mental illness as her mother. However, when he goes to clean up the skeleton, something strange occurs: by washing one finger with water, the creeping flesh of the title grows back on the digit - what a discovery! After removing the finger from the hand, Emmanuel proceeds to experiment on it and finds its blood contains tendriled black cells, which, when mixed with human blood eat up the healthy cells.
After that it's a short distance on that all-too-familiar road to hell which is paved with good intentions and Emmanuel mixes up a serum to kill off the black cells - cells which are present in the bodies of the criminally insane. When Penelope starts exhibiting slightly loopy traits (dressing up as her mother once she finds out the truth, for example), her father injects her with the serum, with predictable results, i.e. she goes on the rampage. The breakdown of both Penelope and, eventually, Emmanuel is surprisingly effective as you genuinely feel sorry for the professor (Cushing is especially poignant) who only wanted to help. And the finale, which sees the skeleton grow back its flesh and search for its missing finger, is unashamedly cruel, as is the twist ending which offers no note of hope - only its provocative but underdeveloped take on the nature of evil lets it down. Music by Paul Ferris.
A much respected cinematographer for decades, British Francis made his way up from camera operator on films like The Small Back Room, Outcast of the Islands and Beat the Devil to fully fledged cinematographer on such films as Room at the Top, Sons and Lovers (for which he won his first Oscar), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and The Innocents (a masterpiece of his art).