For centuries the science of anatomy lagged behind other fields of study due to cultural norms and religious beliefs concerning the handling of corpses. By the 18th Century, things were changing and medical schools across Europe were allowing the dissection and study of the human body. But while the scientific institutions pushed forward, the laws regarding which bodies were acceptable to desecrate lagged behind. Edinburgh, Scotland had become one of the premier cities in the study of anatomy and yet the law still only allowed for the bodies of criminals and suicides to be used as cadavers for study.
During this time, the demand for corpses far outnumbered the legally obtainable ones for medical use. Thus began the rise of bodysnatchers in the city. Unscrupulous individuals would often dig up the bodies of the recently deceased and sell them to hospitals and institutions of higher learning pretending they didn’t know where the bodies were coming from while paying handsomely. In 1828, two rather beguiling young men decided that it was a waste of time waiting around for people to die in order to steal their corpses and started killing them instead. They murdered at least 16 people and sold them to Dr. Knox, a lecturer at the Edinburgh College of Surgeons who likely knew what they were doing but so desperately wanted the bodies for his classes he pretended not to.
The murders created a huge scandal and led to the Anatomy Act of 1832, which loosened the restriction on which bodies could be used for scientific study. The story of Burke and Hare has been adapted numerous times in books, the theater, and in film, usually with a great deal literary license. In 1960, Triad Productions released The Flesh and the Fiends based upon the story directed by John Gilling and starring Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, and George Rose. It was the first film adaptation to use the real names of the main characters.
Cushing plays Dr. Robert Knox, a rather uptight and haughty professor of anatomy in Edinburgh. He is beloved by his students for his brilliant mind and scorned by his fellow doctors for his progressive views on using human cadavers in his lectures. He’s secretly given his assistant Dr. Mitchell (Dermont Walsh) and a young student named Jackson (John Cairney) the task of procuring more bodies from so-called Resurrection Men. Whilst they are laying payment for a new body in a local dance joint, they are overheard by two scallywags – Williams Hare (Donald Pleasence) and William Burke (George Rose). Learning they can make quite a bit of money for selling dead bodies, they begin making plans. Hare is excited about the prospects, but Burke is a bit squeamish.
As luck would have it when they return to Burke’s boarding house, they discover one of his clients had lent them a hand by dying in his room. Seeing that he owed four pounds sterling to Mr. Burke, the two figures determine he can now make payment with his corpse. Seeing that the deceased met his maker recently, Dr. Knox agrees to pay them more than he did for the bodies that had to be dug up. Soon enough, Burke and Hare are murdering more boarders than they can keep in stock.
Meanwhile, Jackson has taken up with a prostitute (Billie Whitelaw) he met at the dance hall he’s been using as his rendezvous point with the various Resurrection Men. She also knows Burke and Hare, a fact that will come into play later in the film, but mostly it is an excuse for the film to have a romantic subplot that goes nowhere. It tries to add some drama with the differences between the classes – a good doctor can’t exactly be going around high society with a prostitute by his side – but it isn’t very well done and made me wish it would get back to the murdering.
Though Peter Cushing gets top billing, he’s the least interesting character in the whole movie. We see him give various lectures to his students and a monologue to his peers on the virtues of modern science. When his associates try to tell him that they think Burke and Hare are murdering the bodies they bring in, he brushes them off. He seems to know what is happening but thinks that a few murders is worth the advances in science. The film never delves too deeply into his psyche, or even gives him that much screen time. Instead, it focuses on his associates and the two killers.
Truly this film belongs to Rose and Pleasence, the later of which deliciously chews each scene he’s in. He plays William Hare like a psychopath who takes great delight in his violent plans. It is he who initially pushed Burke into taking the first corpse to Dr. Knox, and he who continually wants to kill more and more people for the money. Pleasence is clearly relishing the role.
Shot in Shepperton Studios in England, the film’s sets (including a massive town square) are gorgeously rendered and the cinematography is stunningly beautiful. It is a film one wants to pause regularly and just look at each image. It is full of terrifically creepy atmosphere and the production values are all quite good. I could have done without the romantic subplot and perhaps a bit more of Peter Cushing doing more than lecturing people but this is more than made up for by Pleasence’s marvelous performance.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics presents The Flesh and the Fiends with a brand new 2K master. There are at least three different versions of the film The original UK version runs at 94 minutes. There was also a “Continental” version for the more permissive non-UK European outlets, which adds in a couple of extra seconds of violence and a surprising amount of topless nudity for the time. It clocks in at 95 minutes. Then there is the U.S. version, alternately called Mania or The Fiendish Ghouls. It cuts out quite a bit knocking the runtime down to paltry 74 minutes. Both the Continental and U.S. cuts are included in this set. Extras include an audio commentary from film historian Tim Lucas, and the usual trailers.