Tuesday, March 20, 2018


"Coffins Looted ! Cadavers Dissected !"  

    The historical horrors of Edinburgh's infamous murdering/grave robbing duo of William Burke and William Hare have long fascinated filmmakers and writers. Starting in 1948 there was Tod Slaughter's THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART (British censors forced name changes) and recently there was John Landis's BURKE & HARE in 2010 along with the excellent THE BODY SNATCHER from 1945. In the late 1950's producer/writer/director John Gilling (THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES and THE REPTILE) formed Triad Productions for the specific purpose of producing THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS. Gilling had previously written 1948's THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART and frustrated with his inability to bring historical accuracy to the film because of the censors looked again to the project in the more liberal post- Hammer period of British horror.
     In the early 1800's Edinburgh Scotland was the center of anatomical study in Europe with the shortage of fresh cadavers forcing doctors to deal with grave robbers (or "resurrectionist") who dug up freshly buried corpses or in the case of Burke and Hare turned to murder. Public outcry led to the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1932 which allowed the donation of corpses for medical study and ids a plot point in the current BBC series THE FRANKENSTEIN CHRONICLES.

    Written (along with Leon Griffiths) and directed by Gilling this stands among the finest of British "historical horrors" and features one of Peter Cushing's best non-Hammer roles after that studios THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA propelled him to stardom. At the same time, there was an un-produced script by Dylan Thomas floating about (that would emerge as THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS in 1985) so the script was re-written by Griffiths in order to not have too much in common with the earlier Slaughter film and the Thomas script.
   Although closely based upon the actual events (with a few ghoulish details added mostly regardarding the climax) the story adds the character of Chris Jackson (John Cairney) and his relationship to Dr. Knox (Peter Cushing) and the two resurrectionists William Burke (George Rose) and William Hare (Donald Pleasence). Set in 1828, medical student Jackson is employed by surgeon/teacher Dr. Knox to aid his assistant Dr. Mitchell (Dermont Walsh) in the procurement of corpses for his classroom work. At one point Jackson is dispatched to a pub to pay for a recently delivered specimen and there he meets feisty prostitute Mary Patterson (a young Billie Whitelaw) and begins a relationship with her (and a rather lusty one for 1960 censors)

   We're also introduced to Burke who along with his wife Helen (Renee Houston) runs a seedy boardinghouse with one of the tenants being Hare. After another boarder suddenly dies the duo sells the body to Knox and begin their string of murders (historically sixteen are credited to them) to expedite the process. Jackson and Mitchell both bring their concerns to Knox concerning the freshness and signs of violence (suffocating or "Burkeing" as it was called was their preferred method) upon the bodies provided by the pair. Things are brought to the forefront horrifically (especially in Jackson's case) in the film's climax and while sticking mostly to the facts does have a more grislier comeuppance for Hare then happened historically.
    Shot in B&W scope (Dyaliscope credited here as "Dylacope - one of the many cheaper Cinemascope knock-offs) by Monty Berman (THE CRAWLING EYE) while looking a bit more upscale with the widescreen compositions still has certain grungy look about it (fitting its setting & plot). Shot at Shepperton it was able to use some of that studios more spacious sets helping it avoid a "set bound" look for the most part. Like several other British horror films produced during this period such as JACK THE RIPPER and THE HELLFIRE CLUB, it was shot with a few alternate scenes for a "continental" version for showing in Europe. Consisting of few glimpses of topless barmaids (but not Billie Whitelaw) and a close-up of a hanging climax they're included on the Image DVD (released as a part of their EuroShock Collection and now OOP).
    Cushing is excellent here portraying Dr. Knox as a man of high principles who turns a blind eye to what part he takes in the crimes and his role here can be seen as an extension of his Dr. Frankenstein in the Hammer films. This can be seen especially in the sequence where he haughtily talks down to his fellow doctors. Speaking of eyes, Cushing's Knox displays one droopy eye (the result of childhood chicken pox) of which the historical Dr. was afflicted and it was used predominately in the films artwork. The historical Dr. Knox though while ostracized from the medical community escaped any form of punishment which caused a public outcry and is the basis for Robert Wise's excellent THE BODY SNATCHERS.

    Donald Pleasence is wonderful as the wanna-be dandy Hare. Wearing a well-worn top and raggedy dress clothes he fussily plays with his ring and snuff box and constantly tries to suck up to the more refined Knox ("would you take a bit of snuff doctor") while being constantly rebuked by him. The loathsome hatred of having deal with the likes of Hare is brought to the forefront beautifully by Cushing. Rose and Pleasence have some great dialogue together, while sometimes getting close to comedy, it does add to the characters evil charm. There's a bit of unnecessary subplot with Cushing's niece coming for a visit and while initialing setting up a love interest for Dr. Mitchell this goes nowhere and is likely added to pad the running time.
    It was released by Valiant Pictures in the U.S. under various tiles such as MANIA and PSYCHO KILLERS and in 1964 was cut by 23 minutes and released by Pacemaker under the title THE FIENDISH GHOULS. The Image DVD contains both the 94 min British theatrical print (complete with its "X" certificate) and the 95 minute "continental" version with the naughty bits.

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