Wednesday, October 25, 2006


This Victorian horror/sf film which co-stars Hammer favorites Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee has a few too many subplots going for its own good, and its horrors are more subtle than some fans of the genre like, but it's worth watching for good performances and interesting (if not always successful) narrative threads. In a rather surreal opening, Cushing is painting horrific Dali-like portraits on the wall of his laboratory and telling a visitor that he has made the startling discovery that evil exists as a bacteria and he has it under his microscope. The main story then unfolds in flashback as Cushing returns to England from New Guinea with a skeleton of a primitive humanoid, and based on his readings in the local folklore, he believes it belongs to a race of creatures of pure evil. While washing off one of its hands, Cushing discovers that when water drips on it, its flesh re-composes, and he cuts off one of the fleshy fingers for further study. At the same time, he has to deal with dysfunctional family matters: his long-institutionalized wife has died (in an asylum run by Lee, his brother), and he is concerned that her illness will be passed down to his innocent daughter (Lorna Heilbron), who has just been told about her mother's secret illness. He makes a serum out of the cells of the skeleton that he thinks will serve as an antidote against evil and injects Heilbron with it. For one reason or another (the serum, or heredity, or the realization that such a huge secret had been kept from her), she snaps, runs away, and heads to town to act like a slattern. In a third plot line, Lee, who plans to steal the skeleton from his brother, has to deal with an escaped maniac, who winds up crossing paths with Heibron and setting up the climax of the film which ties all the plot threads together in a more or less satisfactory way, including a scene inspired by Val Lewton's THE BODY SNATCHER in which the skeleton winds up out in the rain and, of course, reconstituted and ready to find its missing finger. Cushing is really the star of this one and he acquits himself nicely with a nuanced portrayal of a man who thinks he's doing the right thing, for both his own flesh and blood, and for mankind, but who makes a monkey's breakfast out of everything (and, come to think of it, there actually is a monkey running around in the movie). Some critics take exception to the film's equating sex with evil (the sheltered daughter's slutty behavior is certainly seen as her first step toward total evil), but I saw the movie saying that the real problem was Cushing's well-intentioned sheltering. At any rate, the film's soup of repression, inherited insanity, sexual desire, and primal evil makes it difficult to assign meaning here, and indeed the movie is best viewed as an archetypal Cushing/Lee mad scientist movie. [DVD]

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