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.
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
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
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
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.
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!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson