The Flesh & The Fiends (1960)
"Coffins Looted! Cadavers Dissected!"
In the 1820s, Dr Knox is a professor of anatomy in Edinburgh whose research requires him access to fresh corpses. Knox begins accepting corpses from a shifty pair named Burke and Hare, whose steal bodies from newly-dug graves for him. But when Knox asks for fresher corpses on a more regular basis, Burke and Hare turn to murder in order to provide the good doctor with bodies. When they realise that they are onto a good thing, Burke and Hare become more daring and less choosy about whom they kill.
Based upon the shocking true story of notorious grave robbers Burke and Hare, The Flesh and the Fiends is old school horror film making at its best. Almost impossible to find in the UK at the time of review, it's one of the most underrated films of it's time and very violent and cold-hearted. Despite being made in an era more famous for pushing the boundaries of horror in glorious colour for the first time (this was the Hammer era after all), this one was shot in black and white to give it an old school 30s or 40s feel. The resulting product is a film that is arguably more frightening and disturbing than any of the shockers that Hammer or anyone else was putting out. The monsters of this film were real and more sadistic and ruthless than any Count Dracula or Baron Frankenstein could ever be.
The Flesh and the Fiends is good if you're in the mood for a talky affair because the horrors are of the internal man-made variety. The real horror of the film is the way in which the wealthy and influential Knox uses the dim-witted duo to his advantage, letting them do all of the dangerous work and then reaping the rewards for himself. He knows where the bodies are coming from but turns a blind eye because he knows he won't take the rap for it if Burke and Hare are caught. It's sad and a little depressing to think what life was like at the time if you didn't have an education - Burke and Hare's sole purpose in life is to get money to drink and entertain women. They have no ambition. No plans for the future. They wake up every day and wonder how they're going to get their next drink. Men without hope or a future can be dangerous because they've got nothing to lose and this film explores the lengths to which some would go in order to eek out a living. There are some unnecessary sub plots which just take up screen time and go nowhere including one of Knox's students undertaking a romance with a local whore (although when the story goes full circle there is some minor relevance).
Director John Gilling, who would go on to helm a couple of Hammer horrors later in the decade, does a decent job of creating 19th century Edinburgh with dark alleys, seedy pubs and squalid houses. There's a very depraved underlying vibe here, not only for the fact that is a true story but in the manner in which it's all presented in such a grim and gruesome fashion. Seeing a young retarded boy strangled to death in a pig sty is still unsettling today. An old woman gets smothered to death. Despite not being filmed in colour, the scenes of the corpses being dragged out of the graves or examined by Dr Knox are very realistic. The film doesn't use the violence and graphic make-up as its centrepiece, opting to focus on the characters which makes the violence all the more shocking. I can see why this caused a stink with the censors.
Peter Cushing is outstanding once more. He was born to play these cold, calculating scientists and provides us with another chilling performance of intelligence and ruthlessness. It’s a role that is not a million miles away from his portrayals of Dr Frankenstein. Both men of science, devoted so much to their work and making progress that their ethics and morals go out of the window. The scene in which he cuts down his fellow doctors with a barrage of venomous quips is awesome. Despite his chilling portrayal of Knox, Cushing still embodies the character with a sense of humanity, something he was not able to do with Frankenstein, and the penultimate scene of the film features his realisation at what he had done.
Donald Pleasance portrays Hare, the more crafty of the two grave robbers. It doesn't matter whether it was from the 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s, Pleasance is one of those actors who have never altered. He looks exactly the same here as he did in Halloween nearly twenty years later! I've always rated Pleasance as a good actor and it's a shame that his career has never been as well received as it deserves to be. He did make some stinkers in his later career but he's always performed excellently (look at him in The Great Escape for instance - people tend to forget that he was in that). It takes two to tango in this film though and George Rose is equally as slimy as Burke who is the lesser intelligent of the two and prone to caving in to Hare's demands. Together the two men create one of the most formidable and frightening duos in horror history.
Set in a dark era in English history, The Flesh and the Fiends works superbly as a horror or factual thriller. I can't believe I'd left it this long to check out one of the few remaining Peter Cushing films that I haven't seen but it was definitely worth the wait as the maestro delivers one of his most compelling performances.
The Flesh & The Fiends
Director(s): John Gilling
Writer(s): John Gilling (original story), Leon Griffiths (screenplay)
Actor(s): Peter Cushing, June Laverick, Donald Pleasance, George Rose, Renee Houston, Dermot Walsh, Billie Whitelaw, John Cairney
Duration: 94 mins