“A Victorian-age scientist returns to London with his paleontological bag-of-bones discovery from Papua New Guinea. Unfortunately, when exposed to water, flesh returns to the bones unleashing a malevolent being on the scientist’s family and friends.” — IMDb
I mean, can you really go wrong with a 70s horror/sci-fi flick by a veteran Hammer director starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and some kind of huge, undead creature that is the embodiment of evil? No, no you can’t.
The story centers around Professor Hildern (Cushing), an ultimately well-meaning but deeply sad Victorian-era scientist who brings home the remains of some kind of humanoid being from an expedition to New Guinea. In his studies of the mythology of the region, and of the remains themselves, he becomes convinced that the bones are what remain of a huge, malevolent giant — a biological representation of evil itself — that will be reanimated by rain. He tries to use this discovery to better the world, starting with his own small family, but things don’t go quite as planned…
** SPOILERS! **
I’m always a big fan of the whole theme of “mad scientist gone wrong”, despite the fact that those movies often have big plot holes (and this film is no exception). In some cases it’s a scientist driven to immoral acts because of an irresistible urge for power, money, invincibility, whatever… but in some cases, like this one, it’s the urge to improve the world that steers someone in such a calamitous direction. It gives the movie a quality of sadness that is interesting to me.
I loved all of the simultaneous battles between good and evil. The battle of this mysterious, mythical creature embodying evil and needing to fight against the good of the world. The smaller scale battle of Professor Hildern — wanting to turn the world into a paradise — vs his half-brother, Dr. James Hildern (Lee), wanting his own recognition and fame even at his own relative’s expense. The more complex battle of Professor Hildern wanting to keep the truth about his wife from his daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), seemingly for her own good.
Christopher Lee, naturally, brilliantly plays the cloaked half-brother who runs the asylum, and Peter Cushing is fantastic per usual.
The very Gothic settings, camera work, and even some of the special effects are pretty great. It’s a fairly low budget horror film from the 70s so the special effects aren’t exactly going to rock anyone’s world, but I thought the scene where the flesh first formed on the finger bone was pretty impressive considering (and Cushing staring, perplexed, through his magnifying glass was a great touch).
The entire concept of evil being physical rather than psychological — a disease rather than a mental disorder — I thought was, in some ways, surprisingly complex for a horror film. It gave an air of hope — of being able to defeat what had always seemed to be unstoppable.
There were some interestingly conservative touches (though I could be wrong) to both Professor Hildern’s wife, Marguerite’s (Jenny Runacre), mental collapse and his daughter, Penelope’s. Not much is shown of either aside from them becoming extremely uninhibited, particularly when it comes to attracting and enjoying attention from men. I mean, yes, Penelope starts to enjoy being physically cruel with no provocation, but her initial “madness” is simply her finally breaking free of the bonds in place by her father trying, maybe naïvely, definitely unfairly, to protect her. (And her scratching the one dude’s face up and slitting the other guy’s throat were pretty justified, from what I could see.)
The atmosphere is pretty great throughout, but particularly during the ending scenes. I loved the horse-drawn carriage chase through the rain with the added tension of knowing the skeleton was quietly reanimating. When Professor Hildern finds the tipped carriage and sees the hooded monster silhouetted up ahead, with thunder booming and lighting flashing… awesome. One of my favorite shots was when you could hear the creature shuffling towards the house and see its shadow first moving horizontally and then becoming larger and larger as it approached (without seeing the creature itself) — so good. And the look of terrified surprise on Professor Hildern’s face as we view it from INSIDE the hollow creature… good times.
And THE ENDING. I actually, for once, won’t spoil it here but DAMN, I loved it. It almost leaves it up to your interpretation but there’s one tell-tale clue (at least from the way I interpreted it) that makes it, in some ways, even more horrifying than the alternative. Great twist.
All in all a solid watch. The fear is more impending, more slowly creeping, than some might enjoy (with more deep concepts to chew on in the meantime), but I really appreciated that.
Rating: 7/10 | Director: Freddie Francis | Writer: Peter Spenceley, Jonathan Rumbold | Music: Paul Ferris | Cinematography: Norman Warwick | Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Lorna Heilbron, George Benson