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DVD SAVANT

The Flesh and the Fiends


The Flesh and the Fiends
Image Entertainment
1959/ B&W / 2:40 anamorphic 16:9 / 97m. aka The Fiendish Ghouls, Mania, Psycho Killers
Starring Peter Cushing, June Laverick, Donald Pleasence, George Rose, Renee Houston, Dermot Walsh, Billie Whitelaw, John Cairney
Cinematography Monty Berman
Art Direction John Elphick
Film Editor Jack Slade
Original Music Stanley Black
Writing credits John Gilling, Leo Griffiths from a story by John Gilling
Produced by Robert S. Baker, Monty Berman
Directed by John Gilling

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Image Entertainment has truly come through with a rarity. The Flesh and the Fiends has been unavailable almost since it came out, with only cut versions of its various incarnations popping up from time to time. All of these were of course pan-scanned. Not only is the film now intact and in a generous Dyliscope aspect ratio, but someone has succeeded in augmenting the full-length UK original cut with the spicer 'continental' version. The Baker/Berman producing team were frequently noted for inserting alternate nude footage in titles like The Hellfire Club for export, and it's very interesting to finally see some of this footage.

Synopsis:

Edinburgh, the 1820s. Dr. Knox (Peter Cushing) is a dedicated teacher of anatomy who fights the prejudices of his ignorant colleagues while stressing a totally pragmatic and progressive approach to both medicine and politics. His successful assistant Dr. Mitchell (Dermot Walsh), niece Martha (June Laverick) and less successful student Chris Jackson (John Cairney) all worry in the knowledge or suspicion that Dr. Knox is accepting corpses from bodysnatchers whose sources are dubious at best. Street sharps Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasence) bring in dissection subjects like clockwork. Even though the bodies are unusually fresh and some bear marks of violence, Knox prefers to turn a blind eye, while 'ressurectionists' Burke and Hare are becoming more daring and less choosy about who they choose to turn into instant study cadavers.

One of the better Hammer imitators, the famous 'Berman and Baker team' at least put adequate production values into their horror and science fiction efforts, all of which are worthy subjects for DVD. The Trollenberg Terror is a mite crude but a good imitation of Hammer's Val Guest science fiction thrillers. It was for a long time available only in second-rate, spliced-up copies of its US version, The Crawling Eye. Jack the Ripper had its American release from Joseph E. Levine, who tried out the blitz ad campaign and product tie-in theories (even the soundtrack album was heavily promoted) that soon made him a fortune with Hercules. Their The Hellfire Club was a notorious movie about hedonistic Brit aristocrats that did far better than it warranted. Just mentioning the fact that the film had a saucy Continental version garnered all kinds of attention, even though the only skin on view in America was in a photo spread in Playboy magazine.

The Flesh and the Fiends is not really a horror film but a quality historical drama, handsomely produced and quite faithful to the gruesome facts. Burke and Hare are Irish immigrants, and there's nothing but crudeness to the way they 'Burke' their victims by asphyxiation. They then tote them around in packing crates, eagerly collecting the cash for another drunk.

The acting is first rate. Peter Cushing is excellent as the humorless, over-confident doctor. He strays from the ethical path not from hubris, as always seems to be the case with egomaniacal mad doctors, but from a simple desire to cut through the ignorance and stupidity of 1825 society. Kind of a benevolent Baron Frankenstein, Dr. Knox knows his ideas are decades ahead of the world around him and has developed an arrogant manner easily misinterpreted as malice. Medical progressives of that time must have had to be fierce individuals to withstand the condemnation of the church, the press and their own medical profession. Ever resourceful, Cushing has given himself a lame, half-opened left eye that both symbolizes his moral blindness -- and alters his appearance just enough to keep audiences from thinking Dr. Knox is really just Dr. Stein or Dr. Frank sequelling from The Revenge of Frankenstein.

The secondary characters are also well-played, but John Gilling's script doesn't give some of them enough individuality. Second-billed June Laverick has practically nothing to do and Dermot Walsh's obedient medical assistant is painfully undeveloped when he could be more conflicted, like Starbuck in Moby Dick. Further down on the cast list are John Cairney and Billie Whitelaw, who are very good in an Of Human Bondage subplot that is predictable but at least leads somewhere. Cairney, stood out in A Night to Remember as the Irish lad dancing a jig in steerage. He had a so-so career while Whitelaw later became a much more notable name.

The surprise for 1959-60 audiences must have been Donald Pleasence as the babyfaced killer Hare. A bit player who got plum roles in both the 1954 TV 1984 and the '56 Edmond O'Brien version, Pleasence receives more screen time than Cushing and steals the show with his greasy preening, raggedy mountebank costumes and completely conscienceless malice. He and Burke play their roles as functioning drunks who know a good thing when they see it; Pleasence makes his William Hare sly but foolish. Boris Karloff still holds top place in the resurrectionist subgenre with his beautiful playing of murderous class envy in The Body Snatcher; Pleasence shows a more naturalistic eagerness to please his betters. The scenes where the sleazy Hare patronizes Dr. Knox are sharply played.

The production values of The Flesh and the Fiends outshine the House of Hammer. The sets are rich and detailed, with ceilings in Knox's hallway and livestock quartered in the filthy alleys (mews?). There's never the sense of the cramped, recycled sets and dressings of Hammer. Gilling the director has a good eye for camera placement and atmosphere and the rowdy goings-on in the bars and brothels actually have some life to them (even in the 'tame' version), something Hammer couldn't manage even when the censorship eased in the late '60s. The film is lacking in outright grue and gore but the tone is perfect. The cadavers look suitably unpleasant and Burke and Hare slog them around as if they were bothersome rag dolls. This will mean nothing to horror fans hoping for graphic grossness, but it makes the unwholesome atmosphere all the more tangible.  2

Pleasence, Whitelaw and Cushing keep interest high, which helps with the deliberate (factual) story that bursts into its third act when (surprise, surprise) a newly delivered cadaver turns out to be a key cast member.  1 The most memorable moment to Savant is when (spoiler) Cushing's icy demeanor cracks in reaction to an urchin tot, who's been told to be careful with strangers, or Dr. Knox might get her! This portrait of an idealist who discovers his public image is that of a boogeyman is restrained but powerful. With the present fervor going on about Stem Cell research, The Flesh and the Fiends suddenly becomes a topical movie about medical ethics.


Image Entertainment's classy The Flesh and the Fiends disc has both versions of the movie, a title sequence for its Mania variant version and some nice ads and stills. The unjust nature of horror film distribution is made very clear in ad mats that place yet another cut variant, The Fiendish Ghouls, on the bottom of a bill with the worthless Horror of Spider Island. The sexy scenes in the Continental version (I'm sure nobody out there wants to read about this) are nicely integrated into the movie and are not cheap inserts. They kind of displace the movie in time ... the film has too much 1950s quality for the 1970-ish topless nudity. It certainly adds to the bawdiness, and almost justifies itself beyond the crass commercial aim. By comparison, the topless tarts salted into Witchfinder General nine years later come off as completely sleazy.

The picture quality is excellent, with a wider-than usual reformatting of the original photography. The audio is moderately crunchy, however, and subtitles or closed captioning would have been a big help in hearing the less well-articulated lines. The Flesh and the Fiends is going to be a must-have for horror fanatics. It's a fine disc and Image should be proud. Savant hopes it does well, and encourages the revival of The Trollenberg Terror and Jack the Ripper on DVD.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Flesh and the Fiends rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good-
Supplements: Two theatrical versions, including the 'lost' Continental cut, Mania title sequence, ad art and stills, trailer for The Fiendish Ghouls.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 12, 2001


Footnotes:

1. This kind of predictability doesn't help The Flesh and the Fiends, and really hurts the much later The Doctor and the Devils, which was written by Dylan Thomas first, but plays like a retread of this Gilling film.
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2. Which is disappointing, as this historical 'medical' horror film surely has a righteous need to exploit the horror of what real surgery might have been like in 1826. The Image disc of Corridors of Blood, a predictable horror film with a great classic hidden somewhere inside, seems to cut some surgical details but the original is probably not much more graphic. The big shock gore movie for 1959 was The Stranglers of Bombay, another historical drama laced with mutilations, stabbings, brandings, blindings, hangings and mass strangulations ... Savant feels the need to write about that one!
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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