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Flesh and the Fiends (Special Edition), The
Written and directed by John Gilling in 1960 and based on the infamous Burke and Hare murders from the 1800's, The Flesh And The Fiends is set in Edinburgh, Scotland, which just so happens to be the base of operations for one Dr. Robert Knox (Peter Cushing). He's delighted, early in the film, to receive a visit from his niece, Martha Knox (June Laverick), and so too is one of his students, Chris Jackson (John Cairney), who Knox pays to help out around the surgical school he runs.
Always in the need for fresh cadavers to use in his work, Dr. Knox relies on two disreputable men, William Burke (George Rose) and William Hare (Donald Pleasence), to supply him with bodies, paying them handsomely for their work and asking no questions as to where the bodies come from. Knox feels it is more important to keep his students properly educated and to get them the training they need than it is to look too far into Burke and Hare's nocturnal activities, most of which revolve around The Merry Duke Tavern and a nearby brothel, where drunks frequently stumble home alone, late at night and in very empty streets. On top of that, Burke's wife, Helen (Renee Houston), who he mistreats quite horribly, runs a boarding house which further adds to the two men's supply of people that nobody will miss should they go missing.
When Chris falls in with a lovely drunk named Mary Patterson (Billie Whitelaw), he does what he can to get her to give up her disorderly ways, but this romance seemed doomed from the start and, as Burke and Hare become more brazen in their pursuits, a light start to shine on their connection to Knox's school.
Very atmospheric and featuring some excellent production design and art direction, The Flesh And The Fiends comes together really nicely. A big part of this has to do with the casting of the picture. Cushing is excellent in his role as Knox, bringing that nobility and determination to his character that he brought to many of the Hammer Studios Frankenstein films. The man does a fantastic job of portraying his convictions in a very believable way, it's a great role for him and he looks eerie enough with a makeup appliance over his left eye (the left side of the real Knox's face and eye was disfigured after a bout of small pox he suffered as a child). If Cushing work here weren't enough on its own, there's also a fantastic turn from Donald Pleasence here, complemented perfectly by George Rose. These two play their characters very well, each man relishing the next murder even more than the last, and they really bring a sweaty, boozy feel to their characters that just feels right. Supporting work from Cairney is decent enough, though he isn't particularly remarkable, while Billie Whitelaw (who is probably best remember for playing Mrs. Baylock in The Omen plays a drunken harlot really convincingly.
Gilling's direction is tight and his script is sharp. Monty Berman's cinematography does a great job of turning Edinburgh after dark into a dangerous land full of dark alleyways, dimly lit streets and rowdy establishments of ill repute. The score from composer Stanley Black is also very good, quite appropriate to the mood that the visuals so effectively conjure up. Really, this one just comes together really well.
The feature version of the movie included on this disc is the stronger, uncut version of the film. This means that it includes a surprising amount of nudity in the brothel scenes, the murder of the older drunk woman is slightly stronger as is the killing of Jamie. It also features a different opening and a fair bit more.
The Flesh And The Fiends comes to Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 2.35.1 widescreen, taking up just over 25GBs of space on the 50GB disc. Taken from elements that were clearly in less than perfect shape, the transfer is a nice upgrade over the older DVD release to be sure, but it is inconsistent in a few ways in terms of contrast and print damage and occasionally even some noticeable telecine wobble. There are scratches throughout and specks as well, and sometimes the blacks can look closer to dark greys, but this has decent enough detail even if it never approaches reference quality. Still, Kino's transfer always looks like film, which is clearly a good thing. There are no noticeable issues with any noise reduction or edge enhancement and compression artifacts never popped up during my viewing. This might not be a reference quality black and white picture, but if it is imperfect it's more than watchable and better than we've had before.
The only audio option on for the feature version of the movie is a 16-bit DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track in the film's native English language. Again, what we get is less than perfect, so expect a bit of hiss here and there and some distortion in a few spots. Most of the time the audio is fine, the track is balanced well enough and has some occasional moments of depth, but it would appear the, as with the video grading, the elements here were less than ideal. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.
There are two primary extras on this disc, the first of which is the inclusion of the shorter alternate cut of the film, The Fiendish Ghouls, which runs 1:14:13 as opposed to the uncut version at 1:34:38 (though ten seconds of that running time is the Kino Lorber logo that precedes the feature presentation . It's also presented in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer in the 2.35.1 aspect ratio, with 16-Bit DTS-HD 2.0 Mono audio, but no subtitles. This transfer gets just over 20GBs of space on the disc and the framing differs slightly here and there. It's doubtful anyone would prefer this version to the stronger, uncut version of the movie but it's always nice to have alternate versions preserved on Blu-ray releases like this, particularly as some viewers likely have a certain sense of nostalgia for them from older home video releases of TV viewings from back in the day.
The other main extra is an audio commentary, available over the uncut version of the movie, from Tim Lucas, who reads the opening text as ‘an expression of damnation and a genuine horror film' rather than a gothic fantasy. As the talk continues, he covers the Burke and Hare grave robbings that took place in Scotland, how this film defied his expectations in a lot of ways when he saw it for the first time as a kid, his appreciation for the film's atmosphere, the film's strong depiction of the era in which the story takes place, the real life character that Cushing's character is based on and the actor's approach to the character, the evolution of the Mary Patterson character in the film, some interesting connections to a few Hammer films made around the same period, the importance of Donald Pleasence's presence in the film, odd doses of comedy peppered throughout the film, Monty Berman's cinematography and lots, lots more including histories, when possible, of pretty much all of the key cast and crew members featured in the picture. Like pretty much all of Lucas' commentary tracks, it's very well researched and quite interesting.
Aside from that, no trailer for the feature itself but we get a few bonus trailers for other Kino Lorber properties that star Peter Cushing (The Hound Of The Baskervilles, Dr. Who And The Daleks, Dalek's Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. and House Of The Long Shadows), menus and chapter selection. The alternate Mania title sequence that was included on the older Image Entertainment DVD release has not been included here.
The Flesh And The Fiends is a solid slice of very atmospheric vintage British horror. Cushing is excellent here, and the rest of the cast all turn in fine work as well. John Gilling's script and direction is top notch and it all just comes together really nicely. Kino's Blu-ray presentation is imperfect but still a decent upgrade over past editions, and Lucas' commentary is very good. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.