At a swinging cocktail party sultry siren Vera Lagrange (Janine Reynaud) is lured away from her fiancé by smooth-talking aristocrat Baron Brach (Michel Lemoine). He invites Vera and her friends to spend the weekend at his beautiful country estate. While Vera and the gang enjoy a bracing horse race to their destination flirty sexpot Elena (Elvira Berndorff) arrives early. Whereupon creepy Baron Brach is so aroused he ravishes her on the spot. Shaken by the assault Elena stirs uneasily while her clueless fiancé George (Jan Hendricks), his sister Marian (Claudia Butenuth), Roger (Pier A. Caminecci), Vera and Brach share a spirited discussion about local legends. One involves a murderous bear that reportedly roams the estate. The other concerns the brutal rape of a peasant girl by an ancestor of the Baron. Pushed over the edge by this story, Elena flees the party on horseback. Her concerned friends give chase. Only to wind up at the creepy neighbouring castle of the Earl of Saxon (Howard Vernon) where some decidedly weird shit goes down...
The presence of bug-eyed character actor Howard Vernon and flame-haired sexploitation star Janine Reynaud, coupled with its dreamily haphazard story structure, has led some to suspect the man behind Castle of the Creeping Flesh (credited as Percy G. Parker) was really trash film 'auteur' Jess Franco under one of his many pseudonyms. Indeed Franco had a hand in the screenplay which was supposedly based on a play by William Shakespeare (which one exactly?!) While Franco's, er, eccentric touch is evident in the film's freewheeling mix of mod drama, semi-parodic gothic horror, esoteric philosophy, weird science and softcore sex, the actual culprit was German matinee idol turned exploitation mini-mogul Adrian Hoven. Hoven later earned his minor moment of infamy in horror film history as the producer and screenwriter behind proto-torture porn Mark of the Devil (1970) and directed its sequel Mark of the Devil Part II (1972). His producing partner Pier Andrea Caminecci makes a rare onscreen appearance here playing a relatively substantial supporting role. A wealthy businessman, Caminecci is unusual in that he drifted into the movie business chiefly because he fancied Janine Reynaud who at the time was married to her frequent co-star Michel Lemoine. According to 'Immoral Tales', Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill's essential study of vintage Euro-horror cinema, Lemoine happily turned a blind eye to his wife's affair with Caminecci 'because it was good for business.' The French, eh?
Lemoine's glowering, glassy-eyed brute comes across like an early variant on the murderous schizophrenic aristocrat portrayed in his later self-directed sex-horror opus Seven Women for Satan (1974). Yet while the first act seemingly sets up Brach as our villain with his jarring sexual assault on Elena (it goes without saying the film has a problematic fixation with rape, but then it is an exploitation movie from the late Sixties) a sudden left-turn wheels out Howard Vernon's Earl of Saxon. He immediately clocks Vera's resemblance to his late mistress and Marian's to his equally late daughter. For it transpires his daughter Catarina was the gang raped and murdered girl from the old legend, supposedly at the behest of the Earl's jealous mistress. In a (presumably unintentionally) hilarious scene the Earl's swarthy manservant Alecos (Vladimir Medar) shows the guests a wax figure display recreating the gang rape complete with unnerving sound effects, something one imagines most grieving fathers could do without. None of the visitors seem particularly affected although Vera is inexplicably turned on. Later in bed she has a fever dream flashback to the assault on Catarina and fondles her bare breasts while a voice-over recites passages from Shakespeare that sound more like the Marquis De Sade.
The bulk of the action (if you can call it that) unfolds at the Earl's creepy castle where the protagonists, including a seemingly comatose Elena, spend the night. Unaware that the Earl and a mysterious fellow scientist are carrying out gruesome experiments in their secret lab re-animating dead flesh. At the finale we learn the identity of the Earl's enigmatic helper is none but Death himself, a shock revelation that might have proven more effective had Hoven not filmed him from such a distance it is hard to make out his skeletal face. While the snarky, self-involved characters are unsympathetic, Castle of the Creeping Flesh unusually refrains from bumping anyone off. In fact aside from the occasional insert of graphic mondo footage of gory real-life surgery there are no scenes one could classify as horrific in the traditional sense. Nonetheless the screenplay by Hoven, Franco and Eric Martin Schnitzler employs a popular Euro-horror trope wherein characters are trapped in a cyclical re-enactment of past sins. This idea - loosely derived from seminal British horror anthology Dead of Night (1945) - reappears in Antonio Margheriti's interesting The Unnaturals (1969) and most notably Mario Bava's haunting late career masterpiece Lisa and the Devil (1973). Like Bava's film Castle of the Creeping Flesh aspires to be a dreamy, esoteric work of le fantastique rather than a fright fest. It is let down by Hoven's rambling, incoherent direction which pads an already slender running time with dull scenes where characters wax philosophical about life, love and death. Off-set by occasional eccentric moments which include recreating the food-flirting scene from Tom Jones (1963), a character mauled by a man in a bear costume and Janine Reynaud spending a satisfying portion of the third act topless in just her underwear. She eventually lands a quite spectacular, seemingly non-simulated sex scene with Caminecci. All the more memorable because mid-way George bursts in screaming that Marian is missing. But they keep on shagging so he leaves. Evidently Caminecci got more out of this film than the audience.