The Flesh and the Fiends
U.K. / 1960
Directed by John Gilling
Peter Cushing
Donald Pleasence
Billie Whitelaw
B&W / 94 Min. (U.K. version) / Not Rated
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
Image Entertainment
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    6   10 = Highest Rating  
The chilling true story of notorious "Resurrectionists" Burke and Hare has been told on film a number of times, usually with the names of key historical figures altered. 1960's The Flesh and the Fiends, starring horror icon Peter Cushing, is by far the best of these adaptations; names and places have not been changed to protect the innocent. An intelligent script, rich production values (for a low budget feature) and fine performances by the leads make this a must-see for horror and "true crime" aficionados alike.
    Dr. Knox (Cushing) is a brilliant surgeon and anatomist who presides over a progressive medical academy in 1820s Edinburgh, Scotland. Because of outdated, theologically-based laws then in effect, cadavers available for scientific research are strictly limited to those of executed criminals, often decomposed by the time they are received. Knox chafes under this edict; he requires "fresh" subjects for his lectures. A man obsessed, Knox is totally dedicated to educating his students in the most up-to-date surgical methods. His self-appointed mission is to replace the quacks that proliferate in the profession with cutting-edge physicians, doctors who'll strive to advance the field of medicine to benefit all humanity. But where how to procure fresh corpses?
    Enter the Resurrectionists, graverobbers who dig up bodies to supply Dr. Knox and others with the anatomy subjects they require. But the bodies delivered are often less than ideal for the academy's needs the Resurrectionists' claims of "freshness" can't be taken for granted. Where there is a market, however, some enterprising entrepreneur will emerge to meet the demand. William Burke (George Rose) and William Hare (Donald Pleasence), two seedy ruffians from the lowest strata of Edinburgh society, hit upon a lucrative scheme to provide Knox with the freshest corpses possible: Murder. They find their victims among the lost, downtrodden souls that populate the shabby gin joints, whorehouses and poverty stricken neighborhoods that comprise their bleak world. Here missing persons aren't missed, the police are seldom seen, and death is commonplace. Dr. Knox, blinded by his obsession, puts his ethical considerations aside Burke and Hare's "product" is simply too good to pass up. But the murderous duo ultimately prove as careless as they are greedy for the coins jingling in Knox's purse. In the end the law will catch up with them, tainting the good doctor with a scandal that would go down in history.
    The Flesh and the Fiends is marvelously acted, with a literate, surprisingly witty script. Cushing is fabulous as Knox, a character not unlike his Baron Frankenstein, though nowhere near as ruthless or cold-blooded. (Knox would never purposely murder someone himself.) I loved the scene in which the doctor, confronted by four of Edinburgh's most prominent physicians over a highly critical article he's published, haughtily rips them to pieces in the the most scathing yet gentlemanly Oscar Wilde fashion. George Rose and Donald Pleasence (Phenomena), as the malleable, dimwitted Burke and scheming, insidious Hare, attack their roles with gusto. A young Billie Whitelaw (The Omen) is quite fetching as the sexy but shallow prostitute that ends up on the academy dissection table, ultimately dooming one of Knox's lovelorn students; the higher-billed June Laverick, as Knox's niece, is a cypher in comparison.
    While focusing on the ethics of early medical research, the film fails to address the evil inherent in a conservative society that would permit such abject poverty and misery to exist an aspect of the tale given prominence in Freddie Francis' 1985 color version of the Burke and Hare story, The Doctor and the Devils (which starred Timothy Dalton, in the Cushing role, as "Dr. Rock"). It's also given a moralistic, rather pat ending. Still, the production values and superior cast lend authenticity to this recounting of one of the darkest, most sensational scandals in British history. (Note: The very thick Scottish accents of some of the characters may throw American viewers for a loop; be prepared to hit the rewind button a time or two.)

The packaging trumpets this disc as a "Double Feature". Technically it is, as both the U.K. and "Continental" versions of the film are included. However, the Continental version is exactly the same movie except for the addition of roughly 1 minute of footage featuring some topless barmaids in scenes at the Merry Duke tavern and the bordello. (The "Bare Flesh" icon above refers to these scenes.) While picture quality of both versions is comparable, the U.K. version has superior audio. I think it was unnecessary to include the Continental version in its entirety; since it's the only difference between the two cuts, the extra minute of bawdiness could have easily (and more logically) been included as an Bonus Feature. I'm not complaining, mind you... Considering its superior sound quality, however, I much prefer the U.K. edit. (I have nothing against breasts honest!) Viewing either version on a larger-size TV or PC monitor is recommended. The film was shot in widescreen ("Dylascope") and director Gilling typically uses as much of the canvas as possible, with minimal close-ups used.
    Part of Image's ongoing Euro-Shock Collection, the DVD also features an American theatrical trailer for the film (under the title The Fiendish Ghouls), an alternate title sequence (using the title Mania), onscreen bios of Cushing, Pleasence, and director Gilling, a photo and poster gallery, and two pages of informative liner notes. 8/30/01