Release Date(s)1960 (July 7, 2020)
Studio(s)Triad Productions/Valiant (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
It’s a delight when a film clicks, with casting, script, and direction coming together to provide a first-class cinematic experience, like The Flesh and the Fiends. Based on historical events, the action takes place in 1827 in Edinburgh, Scotland, a leading European center of anatomical study. The demand for cadavers for medical study has led to a shortage of the legal supply, prompting a spate of body snatching by “resurrectionists.”
Dr. Knox (Peter Cushing) is a man guided by science in the pursuit of knowledge. To teach his students about the human body, he must have a sufficient number of well preserved cadavers to dissect. He is not particular about how the bodies are procured. Enterprising resurrectionists deliver them to his basement laboratory, where he pays handsomely and asks no questions.
William Burke (George Rose) and William Hare (Donald Pleasence) are a couple of unsavory types willing to do anything for money except work. Burke’s wife keeps a lodging house. When an elderly lodger dies, Burke and Hare realize they have a fresh corpse to sell to Dr. Knox. Knowing that the fresher the corpse, the bigger the payday, the two friends assure themselves a regular supply for the good doctor by not waiting for natural causes. He, Burke and Hare develop a symbiotic relationship.
One of Knox’s students, Chris Jackson (John Cairney), a sensitive young man, helps the doctor preserve the bodies. Jackson becomes attracted to barfly Mary Patterson (Billie Whitelaw, The Omen) after she saves him from being victimized by thugs. Reserved, reticent, and inexperienced with women, Jackson is easily smitten and tries to make Mary more presentable to his friends. She, meanwhile, tries to loosen him up.
Directed by John Gilling, The Flesh and the Fiends is an absorbing historical drama with elements of horror. Performances are excellent. Cushing plays Knox with an air of superiority and arrogance befitting a famous professor who puts the needs of science above all else, dismisses the means by which he secures the bodies, and resents the scrutiny and judgment of others.
Whitelaw is excellent as the fiery Mary, whose life is ruled by booze and passion. She’s an odd companion for Jackson and their social disparity creates frequent hiccups in their relationship. With wild hair, low-cut blouses, and seductive eyes, she portrays Mary as a kind of gutter rat trying to fit into polite society with elegant attire and an introduction to pleasures apart from a parade of anonymous men, bawdy talk, and drink. Her Mary stands out from the quiet, lower keyed performances by Cushing and Cairney.
The murders depicted are pretty gruesome. Burke roughly suffocates his victims by covering their mouths and noses as they struggle helplessly. Director Gilling creates the period setting with narrow, cobblestone streets, dark alleys, and dingy rooms in the poor section of town, and a lecture room with ascending tiers of seats filled with medical students—all male. Knox’s home is large and tastefully furnished in period, but his basement is dark and dimly lit.
John Gilling also wrote the screenplay, and it draws us in immediately. A subplot involving Knox’s niece (June Laverick) and his associate, Dr. Mitchell (Dermot Walsh), serves little purpose except as contrast to the troubled relationship between Jackson and Mary. Monty Berman’s cinematography perfectly conveys the period, giving the street scenes and Burke and Hare themselves a grimy look. Even though the focus of the film is how far science should go in the interest of advancing knowledge, it offers solid, interesting characters. Dr. Knox’s tactics might be construed as unethical, but the film isn’t here to preach about morality.
The story of Burke and Hare was also the basis of Val Lewton's The Body Snatcher, made 15 years earlier and starring Boris Karloff. That film used fictional characters, though Dr. Knox is mentioned by name in the dialogue.
The new 2K restored Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The black-and-white image is sharp and well-defined. The clarity is surprising and most welcome in a film of this vintage. Blacks are deep and lustrous, and a variety of greys provide depth to scenes. Lighting is high-key in the doctor’s home, and shadowy in his basement where his business with the grave robbers is conducted. The Edinburgh street scenes appear to have been shot in the studio and suggest a perennially overcast, gloomy sky. Detail is excellent, particularly in Knox’s fancy cravats, wallpaper patterns, candles flickering in their sconces, individual bricks in a wall, cobblestones, strands of hair, and the dingy, soiled ruffle on Hare’s shirt. In an outdoor scene, a lake, surrounded by trees in full bloom, shimmers in the sunlight, providing a pastoral contrast to the crowded, grimy Edinburgh streets. In the pub scenes, cigarette and cigar smoke create a gauzy, diffused view of the rough and tumble goings-on within.
The English mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack contains clear, crisp dialogue from the British cast. Cushing, in particular, savors each word as his Dr. Knox—a hero to his students—drives home his philosophy that science and its advancement supersedes law and even simple humanity. Sound mixing in the pub scenes establishes the raucous atmosphere with loud chatter, Mary’s crude insults, and the racy, shouted comments of drunk men. We hear the echo-y sound of Knox’s carriage wheels and horses’ hooves as it makes its way to his home. The murders take on an added sense of horror when Burke and Hare’s victims struggle and gasp for air as they are slowly suffocated. While they fight for their lives, Burke and his victims flail about as Burke maintains his death grip. Subtitles in English SDH are optional.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary, an alternate cut of the film called The Fiendish Ghouls, and several trailers.
Audio Commentary – Commenting on the continental version of the movie, film historian Tim Lucas notes that in all his years of devouring horror films, The Flesh and the Fiends is the only one that made him physically ill. He attributes this to the film’s “atmospheric eeriness” and “potent carnality.” The camera never flinches from the more unpleasant scenes. The film has never acquired the audience or reputation it deserves. “It’s a vision of hell.” Peter Cushing had made his first two Frankenstein pictures for Hammer at the time of filming. A weak link in the film is the character of Knox’s niece Martha, who is “purely decorative and serves no function.” Burke and Hare are introduced as a comedic stage partnership. Both men exploit each other’s weaknesses. Knox is a class-conscious medical idealist who stands to lose his reputation if his acceptance of cadavers without question comes to light. Though Cushing is the star, the film is really more about Burke and Hare, who committed 16 killings over a 10-month period, all for money “from the purse of Dr. Knox.” In the aftermath of the Burke and Hare crimes, the “Anatomy Act” was passed by the House of Lords in 1832, allowing for the first time donation of cadavers to medical academies and students for the purpose of furthering medical knowledge. Prior to the act, the only bodies available for medical research were those of executed murderers. The continental version of the film, featuring female nudity, shows a milieu where gentlemen “could get an education in the ways of the world.” Mary Patterson initially regards Jackson as a way to exchange sexual favors for hard cash. Frequent comparisons are drawn between the film and a number of Hammer productions. Career overviews are provided for Donald Pleasence, George Rose, and several supporting cast members. Director John Gilling was offered the opportunity to make the film in color but felt the subject matter lent itself more to black-and-white. The continental version runs one minute longer than the British cut. Twenty-seven seconds of violent footage were removed from the British version but restored for the video release. The film was released under several titles in the countries where it played. In the United States, it was released as Mania to capitalize on the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Excerpts from contemporary film reviews from 1960 to 1961 are read. Gilling shows both sides of a moral question and leaves it to the viewers to draw their own conclusions. Today, the film is regarded as a genuine classic of the British horror renaissance.
The Fiendish Ghouls Alternate Cut – This version played in US theaters. Nudity and extreme violence have been eliminated. It runs about a minute shorter than the continental version.
Trailers – Four trailers are included: The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr. Who and the Daleks, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., and House of the Long Shadows.
– Dennis Seuling