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The Flesh and the Fiends1960

  • 3.6
The notorious Burke and Hare, a lowlife duo convicted of robbing graves and murdering sixteen people in 1828 Edinburgh, has inspired numerous film treatments. They've been portrayed by everyone from Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (in Robert Wise's THE BODY SNATCHERS released in 1945) to Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis (in the 2010 comedy BURKE AND HARE). But arguably the very best screen portrayal so far is this 1959 thriller, one of the best amongst numerous British films made at the time by other studios to cash in on the horror craze Hammer had started with its "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" remakes. Borrowed from those films, Peter Cushing is top-billed as arrogant Dr. Knox, the real-life physician scholar whose frustration with finding dissection subjects led him to hire unsavory characters Hare (Donald Pleasance) and Burke (George Rose), no questions asked; he didn't care where his human specimens came from and they didn't care where (or how) they got them. At first they dug the newly dead up from cemetery plots; then, greedy for lucre, they began simply killing poor transients, drunks and others. This impressive widescreen B&W production was perhaps the finest hour for director John Gilling, a genre specialist who revels in the ugliest class divisions and hypocrisies of the era here (as well as the story's ghoulish, cruel aspects). He gets terrifically sleazy performances from Donald Pleasance, of course later known as Dr. Loomis in the HALLOWEEN series, and future musical theater star George Rose, who, in a neat twist of fate, later originated the title role in Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, about another 19th century British serial murderer. Playing the ill-fated trampy barmaid Mary is a young Billie Whitelaw, a brilliant stage actress who would become Samuel Beckett's favorite interpreter, though you may remember her more as the terrifying nanny in 1976's original THE OMEN. - Dennis Harvey

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3 members like this review

Donald Pleasance and George Rose play the bodysnatchers-turned-murderers with a slight hint of slapstick, like evil versions of Vladimir and Estragon. (The Beckett reference isn't entirely gratuitous--the movie has Billie Whitelaw in the role of an ill-fated strumpet.) Peter Cushing, on the other hand, is colder and more lifeless than the corpses he buys for his studies. Omit the ending, which is treacly cant, and you have a film that Fritz Lang could have directed. It's very dark, both literally and figuratively. The "Mabuse" films, "M," and "Fury" all factor in: evil doctors, pathetic murderers, events that culminate in mob hysteria, and a generally uncharitable view of human nature. The cinematography, which fills the screen with shadows that swallow people whole, is very Germanic, too. Really much, much better than the lowbrow title suggests. Give the movie a more dignified name and you can show it anywhere.

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Member Reviews (4)

8dae6774defd1d0f91cc7dd2835ce800?default=https%3a%2f%2fd3uc4wuqnt61m1.cloudfront.net%2fassets%2favatars%2fmale%2favatar m 0083
top reviewer

Donald Pleasance and George Rose play the bodysnatchers-turned-murderers with a slight hint of slapstick, like evil versions of Vladimir and Estragon. (The Beckett reference isn't entirely gratuitous--the movie has Billie Whitelaw in the role of an ill-fated strumpet.) Peter Cushing, on the other hand, is colder and more lifeless than the corpses he buys for his studies. Omit the ending, which is treacly cant, and you have a film that Fritz Lang could have directed. It's very dark, both literally and figuratively. The "Mabuse" films, "M," and "Fury" all factor in: evil doctors, pathetic murderers, events that culminate in mob hysteria, and a generally uncharitable view of human nature. The cinematography, which fills the screen with shadows that swallow people whole, is very Germanic, too. Really much, much better than the lowbrow title suggests. Give the movie a more dignified name and you can show it anywhere.

3 members like this review
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top reviewer

The Flesh and the Fiends is as much a historical drama it is as a crime or horror film. In this way it reminds me of the excellent Boris Karloff film Corridors of Blood, which is at heart a drama about the medical profession.

The Flesh and the Fiends is a terrific production on all levels. The script provides engaging dialogue and fleshed-out characters that the cast brings to life with gusto. While the entire cast is excellent, Peter Cushing's imperious portrayal of Dr. Knox and Donald Pleasance's cold-blooded and unscrupulous William Hare stand out. From Dr. Knox's lecture room, the pubs, and to the street scenes, the art direction effectively creates a convincing vision of 1820s Edinburgh. I also thought the costumes worked very well to convey the period.

The violence of the murder scenes goes quite far for a film from the late 1950s, particularly Daft Jamie's death. The sexuality on display was also more than I expected. Mary is certainly not shy about expressing her desires and following through with them.

It is always a treat to see the captivating Billie Whitelaw on the screen. She does not, unfortunately, have many movie credits.

Great acting,current issues,classic ending, I Loved It

Excellent! Everything you would want from a bit of forgotten horror.