Saturday, July 4, 2009

Flesh and the Fiends, The (1960)

... aka: Fiendish Ghouls, The
... aka: Mania
... aka: Psycho Killers

Directed by:
John Gilling

Unpleasant, extremely atmospheric and very well-acted retelling of the Burke and Hare "West Port Murders" serial killings, which took place in an eighteen month period between 1827 and 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Outwardly-respectable doctor/ anatomy teacher Robert Knox (Peter Cushing) isn't content with only occasionally getting the corpses of executed criminals, so he secretly employs shady Irish grave-robbers Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasence), who go about murdering drunks, bums and prostitutes who frequent a local tavern to procure fresh corpses for their employer. Knox doesn't ask too many questions about where the bodies are actually coming from, nor does he seem to particularly care where they're coming from, but his assistant Dr. Geoffrey Mitchell (Dermot Walsh), who has just begun dating Knox's niece Martha (June Laverick), begins to voice suspicions that fall on deaf ears. John Cairney co-stars as a flunky med school student involved in a doomed romance with a brassy bar girl played by Billie Whitelaw (that evil nanny from The Omen, in an early role) and Renee Houston plays Hare's sour wife, who casually assists the men in the killings. Though the horror fan in me wants to single out Cushing and Pleasence's contributions to this film, it's futile to do so since everyone listed above does equally fine work here and it's really the entire ensemble that drives home this material.

Another of the films great strengths is its evocative period detail, with John Elphick's elaborate art direction, Monty Berman's sharply dark / inky photography and Laura Nightingale's costuming combining to create a seedy, grimy, impoverished environment; a believable breeding ground for casual killings for profit. The contrast between the elite few of the upper class and science community with the depressing living conditions of your everyday average Joe is well played, and the film raises issue to some interesting topics involving medical ethics and whom one might deem worthless or disposable within a given society.

The Burke and Hare incident would go on to inspire many books, stories and films over the years. The first known TV adaptation was a 1939 BBC production titled The Anatomist. Later episodes of the American TV shows Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone were also dedicated to the same subject. The first theatrical film to directly take on the real-incident was 1948's Crimes of Burke and Hare, starring Tod Slaughter. Unfortunately, the British Board of Censors rejected the film and forced the filmmakers to re-dub and remove all references to Burke and Hare before it would issue a release certificate. The film was then re-titled The Greed of William Hart in the UK and Horror Maniacs in the US. Following that were THE ANATOMIST in 1956 (part of the ITV Play of the Week TV series in the UK), The Horrors of Burke and Hare in 1972, The Doctor and the Devils (a virtual remake of Flesh and the Fiends) in 1985 and others. In addition, Burke and Hare inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's short story "The Body Snatcher," which itself would be filmed several times, most notably in 1945 by Robert Wise (which was produced by Val Lewton and starred Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi).

Copyright date for this film is 1959; though it wasn't released until 1960 (the U.S. theatrical title was Mania). It will be making its debut on my Top 10 list for 1960 at #9.


1 comment:

CavedogRob said...

I remember two different versions of this film played on late night TV in the early '80's!

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