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The Doctor and the Devils

The Doctor and the Devils
1985 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9; 1:33 flat pan-scan / 92 min. / Street Date September 6, 2005 / 14.98
Starring Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Twiggy, Julian Sands, Stephen Rea
Cinematography Gerry Turpin, Norman Warwick
Production Designer Brian Ackland-Snow, Robert W. Laing
Film Editor Laurence Méry-Clark
Original Music John Morris
Written by Ronald Harwood from an earlier screenplay by Dylan Thomas
Produced by Mel Brooks, Jonathan Sanger
Directed by Freddie Francis

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

As a followup to his successful horror movie with David Lynch, producer Mel Brooks initiated this upscale version of the Burke & Hare story. It's a true tale done several times before, most famously in Val Lewton's The Body Snatcher with Boris Karloff. That classic refers to the historical events as a recent memory; the grave-robber Karloff perfects an asphyxiation method called 'Burking.'

The Doctor and the Devils goes back to the original events, which have a medical and historical relevance beyond the grisly details. The names are changed from Dr. Knox to Dr. Rock, and from Burke and Hare to Fallon and Broom, but other details are identical. At the time, sanctioned medical faculties were still teaching anatomy from books written by ancient Greeks. Emboldened by the need to advance the body of knowledge, Knox gave his students relevant experience by securing fresh corpses in illicit ways. Much like today's clash between fundamentalism and science, the conservatives of the time considered his attitude blasphemy, while Knox foolishly let his ego lead im into becoming an accessory to mass murder. His body snatchers found that they were better rewarded for fresh corpses, and killing somebody was a lot less work than digging all night in graveyards.


The early 1800s. Doctor Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton) is the star teacher in an anatomy school. Rock barely conceals the knowledge that he procures bodies for dissection by paying grave robbers, and a jealous academic associate (Patrick Stewart) lobbies for his banishment by the medical council. Rock lives a comfortable life, even though his nervous sister Annabella (Siân Phillips) and unhappy wife Elizabeth (Phyllis Logan) fear his blasphemy and despise his mistress Alice (Nichola McAuliffe), who draws life studies for him.
Local alcoholic ne'er do wells Robert Fallon and Timothy Broom (Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea) find out that they can make big money selling cadavers to Rock, and are soon covering their bar tabs by murdering 'redundant' slum dwellers. Meanwhile, Rock's loyal assistant Dr. Murray (Julian Sands) falls in love with prostitute Jennie Bailey (Twiggy).

The Doctor and the Devils is from an earlier, unfilmed screenplay by Dylan Thomas, a fact that contributes both the best and worst in the movie. The intelligent script shows how Edinburgh society works from top to bottom (although all the accents sound like straight London, with Cockney and all coming through). Dr. Rock's peers, a professional monied elite, are convinced that their town is civilized and cultured in all respects. Rock is a do-gooder blessed with progressive ideas but also a libertine far too self-satisfied about his noble cause and his superior mind. Convinced of his rightness, he egotistically rejects the unenlightened concerns of those around him, preferring to play to an audience of students convinced he's a genius. Rock's nervous relatives believe that his obscene inquiries into the sacred domain of the flesh will bring down the wrath of God.

Rock does understand the world that his peers ignore, the rot in the city's lower depths of vice and degradation. He cures one man's shattered leg and is genuinely moved when that man's sister, a prostitute, thanks him with a cheap bauble. Rock's assistant Murray can't help but get involved with another whore, even though both of them know they can never be a couple.

Thus we get a dramatic picture of a societal equation that hasn't changed. The progressive Doctor's way of dealing with the hypocrisy is to bull ahead, flaunting improprieties and turning a deaf ear when his associates tell him that his dissection specimens are almost certainly murder victims. His associates and even the law may tolerate him for some time, but when he goes too far society will strike back with a vengeance. What should be society's hero becomes a loathed villain.

This story had already been filmed by the Baker/Berman producing team right at the beginning of the Hammer horror wave of the late 1950s. The Flesh and the Fiends is practically a carbon copy of the Dylan Thomas script. It has a domineering doctor (Peter Cushing), a rag-tag pair of murdering ghouls (Donald Pleasance and George Rose) and a young assistant enamored of a streetwalker (Billie Whitelaw). Its production values and shock content are high, and Peter Cushing has some uncharacteristically sensitive scenes to play, as he realizes that his city thinks of him as a boogeyman instead of a healer.

The Doctor and the Devils has color and superior production values along with a classy roster of actors. The script is exceedingly literate, perhaps too literate. Dr. Rock speaks almost exclusively in terms of his obsession with medical progress, and Timothy Dalton has the commanding voice but neither the authority nor the intimidation factor to make the character work. Jonathan Pryce became a cinema hero in the same year's Brazil; his alcoholic monster Fallon is appropriately crude but he isn't the loutish type. When the script has Fallon make graveyard jokes "you'll soon get all the rest you want, dearie," he comes off as too sophisticated.

Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) is much more successful at projecting a lower-class stupor. He's just smart enough to think that having no morals is a funny state of affairs, and certainly knows what pleading State's Evidence is.

Rock's sister, wife and mistress all live in his house, and besides showing this state of affairs The Doctor and the Devils doesn't elaborate on it too much. Rock's sister (played by Siân Phillips, a Bene-Geserit sorceress in David Lynch's Dune) equates drawn images of the insides of people with pornography, and has nightmares obviously sourced in her fears that the household is the domain of the Devil.

The cast standout is Twiggy, the underused model-actress most famous for the Russell The Boy Friend -- younger viewers will remember her as Dan Ackroyd's potential gas station date in The Blues Brothers. Her prostitute Jennie is completely convincing. She's a slightly higher brand of bawd with a spirit that catches Julian Sands' eye. We sympathize strongly when she realizes that a girl from an address called Pig's Lane has no future with a gentleman.

Both The Doctor and the Devils and The Flesh and the Fiends have an almost identical series of plot points, up until an event that only rates as a spoiler. Unfortunately, Savant's memory plays tricks with him on this subject. 1

There's no comparing Brooks' The Elephant Man to this movie; David Lynch reappraises and transcends the Hammer formula in much the same way that David Cronenberg goes far beyond the limitations of the old The Fly. The difference is almost all directorial. Freddie Francis was a wonderful cinematographer who rarely seemed invested in the films he directed, and the more he returned to the horror genre the more it was obvious that he had no personal interest in it. Seen in its 2:35 proportions, The Doctor and the Devils finally makes visual sense, but besides a general competence, there's no indication of a director doing anything more than illustrating a script. Direction is all choices of emphasis and constructing visuals to support dramatic climaxes, and this picture just plays out in a flat line. It's handsome and intelligent, but it doesn't grab us.

One thing that does stand out is John Morris' wonderful music. The barroom songs may all be old tunes but the mournful main theme, played as Doctor Rock makes his way down a hillside into town, is truly beautiful. If those kinds of feelings extended to the characters The Doctor and the Devils could have been a much more engaging film.

Fox's DVD of The Doctor and the Devils is a handsome enhanced transfer of this dark and ruddy picture, that contrasts the bright interiors of Dr. Rock's home with the dank and grimy quarters down in Pig's Lane. A flat version is also included; one has to interpret the tiny writing on the center of the disc to figure out which side to play.

The packaging is a rush job - there are no extras besides cross-promoted trailers, and the cover illustration is reminiscent of original ad art. The cobbled-together text on the back of the box reads like a rush job as well.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Doctor and the Devils rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 30, 2005


1. (MAJOR SPOILER) The main threat of the final act is whether or not Jennie Bailey will become a victim of Fallon and Broom's instant cadaver enterprise. I have a theory that in the first cut of the film, Murray finds her (SPOILER!) murdered in the Cock fighting pit when he bursts in and assaults Fallon. Both Jennie and Murray disappear from the film from that point on, and their important story thread just cuts off and is never resolved. I think that Brooksfilm wasn't happy with the picture in general and tried to cheer up the ending, which now feels incomplete. The exact same thing happens in The Flesh and the Fiends, except that the beloved prostitute there ends up discovered on the dissection table!

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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