THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS is a film that contradicted my expectations and was one of the greatest surprises I've recieved in some time. A complex film to be remembered along with the greatest British horror films.
I get sick and tired of paper thin morality tales dressed up in spooky clothes. Before the MPAA, many films tacked on some kind of moral in order to appease the censors and convince community standards groups they were working for the common good. Sometimes, the groups were appeased. Most often, they found some other reason to attack them. This of course can be taxing on an artist, trying to perfect his craft. Sometimes, the filmmakers made the most out of a bad situation. Some never tried at all.
I'm not waving my accusing finger at those who were forced to insert messages where there was none before. No, I'm talking about the people who were moralizers first and filmmakers second - the Golden Rule lessons that make sure the film is 75% preaching and maybe 25% chills. During the first fifteen to twenty minutes of THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, I was afraid that is exactly what I got. Thankfully, I was wrong.
Based on the famous Burke and Hare case, the film opens up with Dr. Knox (Peter Cushing) telling his medical students that they are entering an honorable profession, "sometimes too honorable." Knox, like many overworked scientists in horror films, is in the business of stamping out miracles. He dismisses the barbarism of religion in favor of science, which turns out can be the same barbarism in different clothes.
He has been procuring the services of so-called "resurrectionists" to dig up the graves of corpses for experimentation. We call these people body snatchers today. It's the same logic that says stewardesses are now flight attendants and porn stars are now models, only in reverse.
His colleagues have a love/hate relationship with Dr. Knox. They put on heirs, claiming to be horrified by his behavior, but they tolerate it because he's a genius in the field. And of course, they aren't truthfully offended by what he does since they pay ressurectionists themselves. They do mind him being so brazen about it. At one point, he asks are room of medical professionals, "Is the feeding of worms more sacred than the pursuit of truth?" To his peers, Knox's greatest sin may be brutal honesty.
Burke and Hare, meanwhile, are two drunks willing to do anything for a buck, except work. But when Burke's lodger drops dead, they do have a corpse to supply the good doctor. He pays extra because the corpse is so fresh. It takes them no time to realize that the fresher the corpse, the better the profits. And of course, the best way to guarantee fresh corpses is to cut out the middle man and kill them yourself.
Pleasence absolutely shines as Hare. It's a perfect showcase for those unfamiliar with his work before YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE or HALLOWEEN. He saunters around like cock of the walk, not only acknowledging his degeneracy, but wallowing in it. His performance is alternately funny, menacing and touching.
There are other sub-plots too, some which drive the story forward and some of which merely pad out the running time. Chris Jackson (John Cairney) plays a quiet student of the doctor's who also helps him process the bodies. He's not the rugged hero type, in fact he meets the love of his life, a tavern mainstay named Mary Patterson (Billie Whitelaw) after she saves him - twice - from getting beaten to death.
The relationship between Jackson and Whitelaw is one of the best things in the film. It is the first moment of the film that expands the characters beyond the charming low-income drunks most films would be content to portray them as. The relationship also drives home messages of the class struggle. Jackson is sheltered and naive, Patterson no doubt being the first woman he sleeps with. But his upbringing and set of ideals also teach him to be embarrassed by her company, no matter how much he loves her. Patterson, like many of the poor in Edinborough, is an alcoholic and somewhat loose. He spends his entire time trying to clean her up while she spends her time trying to loosen him up. It's a relationship that seems doomed from the start. The performances here by Cairney and especially Whitelaw are fantastic. It's the type of gem in films of this type that should never be forgotten, but too often are.
Another more useless sub-plot involves Dr. Mitchell (Dermot Walsh) romancing Martha Knox (June Laverick, playing Cushing's daughter), because well shucks, they're both allegedly handsome and that's what you do. Both of these characters are one-dimensional and almost useless to the story. Martha is supposed to be an innocent schoolgirl, who has blossomed only within the last couple years. The trouble is, she looks like she's all of about 35 (Laverick was 28 when the film was made) and nobody has bothered to make her fit the part. It would have been better to get someone else. Best of all would be to eliminate the part completely. The Dr. Knox scenes often play independently of the Burke and Hare storyline. The entire purpose of both Walsh and Laverick is to give Cushing someone to act off of. When Cushing is absent, we may as well be looking at an empty room.
While you're at it, you might as well have dropped Renee Houston as Burke's wife and accomplice. She brings nothing to the part except to have Burke yell at her for her womanly nagging. I guess verbally abusing your wife still passed for humor in the mainstream back then.
Nevertheless, THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS turns out to be far better than expected. It is, by and large, a character-driven piece. It goes beyond it's potential morality tale to really get into the minds of the people who exist on various levels of social standing. Burke and Hare murder poor folk and vagrants, but no one seems to notice until they claim a more clean cut victim.
Finally, all that's left in the last act is for Cushing to give one of the finest performances of his career. At times, easily outshining his work in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN or even STAR WARS.
THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS starts out as a by-the-book shocker and it does have some baggage to drag it down. But through the hands of director John Gilling (PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES) and some incredible performances, the film is transformed into an intelligent and skillful piece of work.