The Flesh and the Fiends (John Gilling, 1960)


AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddEdinburgh.  1827.  The Scottish capital is the world leader in medical research but a scarcity of legally available cadavers has caused medical schools to turn to “resurrectionists,” grave-robbers selling freshly buried (and not so freshly buried) bodies liberated from local graveyards.  Irish immigrants Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasence) join the ranks of the body-snatchers, striking up an uneasy business relationship with eminent surgeon Dr. Robert Knox (Peter Cushing) and quickly deciding to speed the process along by murdering the poor and the homeless.  Men and women, old and young, everyone becomes a target for the deadly duo, but even as the body count rises, Knox turns a blind eye to their methods in order to further his research.  When Burke and Hare go too far and murder a well known figure of the Edinburgh slums, the public goes mad for the killers’ blood and Dr. Knox’s conspiracy is revealed with harrowing consequences.

John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends is a forgotten and under-appreciated classic of British horror, a historical thriller with a disturbingly black heart that is made all the darker for having told the true account of Scotland’s most famous serial killers.  Violent and salacious, yet grand and expressionistic, The Flesh and the Fiends is presented here, for the first time, in high-definition presentations of both the British and the infamous “Continental” cuts of the film.

Special Features:

  • New high definition digital transfer of the British cut of The Flesh and the Fiends and of the “Continental” version with added scenes of nudity and violence shot for the more permissive European market
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard DVD Presentation
  • Uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • New interview with director Joe Dante and graphic artist Charlie Largent on The Flesh and the Fiends and its subsequent versions
  • In Search of Burke and Hare, a documentary on the West Port murders by David Street and hosted by David Hayman
  • Theatrical trailer for The Fiendish Ghouls, the shortened US re-release version of the film
  • Alternate title sequence from Mania, the first US version of the film
  • Gallery of photos, posters, and lobby cards
  • Collector’s booklet featuring an essay by genre writer Jonathan Sothcott and film scholar Edwin Samuelson

“This is the story of lost men and lost souls.  It is a story of vice and murder.  We make no apologies to the dead.  It is all true.”

And so begins John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), arguably the best cinematic dramatization of the West Port murders.  For those unfamiliar with the gruesome histories of William Hare and William Burke, the pair were true historical figures, being North Irish immigrants in Edinburgh, Scotland, who joined the ranks of “resurrectionists” – grave-robbers who dug up bodies from graveyards and sold them to anatomists at medical schools.  Burke and Hare distinguished themselves by committing murders themselves (16, in fact) and selling their victims to Doctor Robert Knox, who overlooked the questionably fresh bodies the pair managed to produce in a brief 10 months.  Burke was eventually hung for his crimes after Hare turned King’s evidence and was granted immunity, while Knox went unpunished and carried on a distinguished career in medical research.

The Fiendish Ghouls PosterGilling’s account of the Burke and Hare killings provides an abbreviated version of the true events that exhibits a surprising degree of fidelity while also embroidering in some of the legend of Scotland’s most infamous murderers.  Gilling had previously written a script on the subject that had been made into The Greed of William Hart (Oswald Mitchell, 1948), and he had the script re-written by Leon Griffiths to avoid any risk of undue resemblance.  The timing of the West Port murders is truncated in The Flesh and the Fiends and fewer victims are represented, although Mary Patterson and Daft Jamie both figure prominently.  Apocryphal stories of William Hare being later lynched and blinded are incorporated by Gilling with gruesome effect, offering some justice to Hare’s avoidance of legal sanction.  Overall, this Triad Productions’ film is a highly effective tale of historical horror with robust performances from all its actors and a decidedly unseemly atmosphere due in large part to its high production values and elaborate sets, something notably more impressive than usually offered by British horror paragon Hammer Pictures.  The film garnered an “X” certificate in the UK, did modest business, and found multiple releases in the US as Mania, The Fiendish Ghouls, and Psycho Killers.

The Flesh and the Fiends French PosterThe Flesh and the Fiends is notable for being thick with villains (or at least memorable for a few villains and a lot of other characters with dubious moral choices).  George Rose and Donald Pleasence are respectively enthralling as Burke and Hare, each making their own individual contribution to the loathsome duo.  Rose’s William Burke is a crude, thoughtless man with little care for any one but himself.  Standing on the gallows, about to be executed for his crimes, he neither repents for his heinous deeds nor does he rail against being betrayed by his partner, but instead complains about the state of his trousers and Dr. Knox’s failure to pay him for the final body.  Pleasence’s “Willie” Hare is an altogether more charming figure in his loathsome airs of sophistication.  While Burke carries out his crimes with careless efficiency, Hare takes an odious satisfaction, even a perverse titillation, in even more repugnant behaviours – stealing food from a street urchin, attempting to rape a tavern girl, enticing and sweet-talking his murder victims, observing and directing Burke’s violent actions.  Hare is a devil with a silver tongue, and when he discusses his contribution to the respectable field of medicine, it only feels partly ironic.  The slums of Edinburgh were a terrible place in the 1820s and Gilling, Rose, and Pleasence ensure that the worst part of it was the presence of Messrs. Burke and Hare.

Class figures prominently in The Flesh and Fiends and the slimy, false haughtiness that Burke and Hare exude is a reflection of the elitist attitude of Edinburgh’s upper crust and of their client, Doctor Robert Knox (Peter Cushing).  Cushing’s Knox moves through the film with an imperious manner from which only a select few are spared, namely his niece Martha (June Laverick).  It is a shield by which Knox justifies the willfully blind eye he turns to the suspect origins of the cadavers he purchases and the clearly evil men with whom he deals (- that moral blindness is given physical representation in his deformed left eye).  Knox maintains his actions are justifiable given his genius and the advances he provides to medicine, something lay people are unqualified to question him upon and something for which his less brilliant (and sometimes negligent) colleagues are frequently reminded.  Like the real doctor of history, Knox avoids any lasting professional or legal penalty for his actions; and he ultimately evidences his superior nature and breeding when a child’s characterization of him as some kind of “ogre” causes him to finally realize the inhumanity of his actions.  Cushing’s acting was not well-regarded at this point in his career, but his portrayal of Dr. Knox was considered one of the film’s high points and critics found promise in The Flesh and the Fiends.

Flesh and the Fiends Japanese PosterIf short of being outright villainous, the remaining figures in The Flesh and the Fiends certainly stand below the moral high ground.  While the taverns and brothels of Edinburgh’s lower classes are full of drunks and lechers (the “Continental” version of the film providing some brief sequences of nudity that adds a soupçon of needed salaciousness and keeps the film clicking along), its drawing rooms and other spaces of privilege are filled with arrogant small-mindedness.  Two couples are caught up in the West Port murders – the high class Martha Knox and Knox’s colleague Dr. Geoffrey Mitchell (Dermot Walsh) on the one hand, and the struggling student Chris Jackson (John Cairney) and Irish prostitute Mary Patterson (Billie Whitelaw) on the other.  Martha and Geoffrey insulate Knox to the end, with Martha attempting to soften her uncle’s self-condemnation and Mitchell keeping his dispute over Knox’s cadaver acquisitions private. Once Knox is exposed and his enemies at the Medical Council stand ready to ruin him, it is Mitchell who successfully defends the good doctor, allowing him to keep his professional reputation and his standing unblemished.  Jackson is a floundering medical student who assists in preserving Knox’s cadavers, and one must wonder if Jackson’s failure to graduate might be a calculated ploy by Knox to keep his dealings secret.  The affections of Mary Patterson quickly turns his head, but his sedate studies and insecure bearing shares little with her rowdy lifestyle and rebellious attitude, and the two vacillate between harsh rows and make-up sex.  Both Mary and Chris find themselves victims of Burke and Hare, Knox’s unwitting purchase of Mary’s body pushing Jackson over the edge and into the murderous hands of the Irish killers.  Once again, class separates the living from the dead and the redeemed from the “resurrected.”

While The Flesh and the Fiends may not quite achieve Titus Andronicus levels of across the board villainy, it does offer a broad survey of the evils that men do – from the sociopathic to the plainly callous, from the tempestuous to the weak and callow, from those who are loyal to a fault to those who are hypocritical in their false innocence.  Ironically, the “heroes” of The Flesh and the Fiends, that is those who take action to end Burke and Hare’s murderous ways once discovered, are the prostitute who witnesses the murder of Daft Jamie (another casualty of the slums who pays for his greed in stealing a murder victim’s ring with his own life) and the angry mob of slum dwellers who ultimately capture Burke and Hare.  Those scenes involving the riotous crowd are impressive, revealing the film’s massive scale and ambition.  Comparisons to Hammer productions are frequently made given the horrific content of The Flesh and the Fiends and the overlapping casting of Peter Cushing, but astute reviewers connect the film to David Lean’s work during the 1940s and to Oliver Twist (1948) in particular.  Standing alongside Twist, Gilling’s film feels like something closer to a historical piece than a horror thriller, albeit one that similarly relies on bleak urban environs and noir-like expressionism to develop a nightmarish air about it.  Gilling’s film is deserving of the comparison to Lean and makes for compelling viewing by setting this nest of vipers in such a grimy, highly textured world.

Mania PosterThe now out of print Region 1 DVD of The Flesh and the Fiends offers a very nice transfer and a compliment of quality special features including both the UK and “Continental” cuts of the film, the opening credits from the Mania cut, the trailer for The Fiendish Ghouls version of the film, a collection of production stills and posters, and liner notes by Jonathan Sothcott.  The only real let down of the Image disc is that it is no longer available.  We can only hope that this leaves the door open for Arrow Video to revive Gilling’s film with an even more impressive Blu-ray transfer.  Despite being UK based, Arrow’s selection of British horror films has remained somewhat modest and none have yet been announced for a Region 1/A release.  With its stellar cast, its infamous content, and its high production values, The Flesh and the Fiends would make for an excellent addition to the Arrow Video library.  We’ve included above a variety of international posters for Gilling’s film, but we’re most fond of this poster for Mania with its particularly threatening imagery, the appearance of Pleasence and Whitelaw, and that fantastic, horror/mod style, and we’d prefer it for possible cover art.

BannerCredits:  We’ve adapted our cover summary from the OOP Image DVD to avoid presenting Dr. Knox in the conflicted and heroic manner of the original synopsis.  For us, he’s as much a villain as Burke and Hare.  The proposed edition ports over the same special features from the Image DVD and adds some new ones to maintain Arrow Video’s high standard of robust and rewarding special editions.  The interview with Joe Dante and Charlie Largent is inspired by their respective discussions on the film for Trailers From Hell.  We felt that some historical context for the West Port murders was needed and so we’ve included David Street’s documentary.  While In Search of Burke and Hare cross-promotes John Landis’s 2010 comedy Burke & Hare (2010), we still felt that it was a valuable addition this imagined Arrow Video release.  (We love John Landis, and while Burke & Hare will not be championed here for a spine numbered edition, we still hope to visit John Landis’s other work in the future.)  Edwin Samuelson is thanked on the back of the Image DVD and given his prominent position as a genre film scholar, we thought he would nicely round out an Arrow booklet on The Flesh and the Fiends.  For those looking for a sampling of the material that could be included in the proposed gallery, head over to The UK Peter Cushing Appreciation Society‘s blog and check out Matthew Mercy’s discussion of the film along with various promotional photos and lobby cards.

Thanks once again to the organizers of The Great Villain Blogathon for letting us participate.  The Blogathon is now in full swing, so go and enjoy some great posts on cinema’s other remarkable fiends!

10 thoughts on “The Flesh and the Fiends (John Gilling, 1960)

  1. Kristina April 16, 2015 / 2:25 pm

    Wow, so interested in this! Love horror, and this cast, and really enjoyed reading your analysis and all the info you included. Thanks for being part of this event.

    • spinenumbered April 16, 2015 / 2:59 pm

      Thanks very much! The posts have been great so far and I’ve discovered so many interesting blogs compliments of The Great Villain Blogathon. Thanks for letting me participate and organizing this wonderful event! And thanks for Winchester ’73 post – I love Anthony Mann (and he’ll eventually make an appearance at MMC! too).

      • Kristina April 16, 2015 / 3:07 pm

        It really is a great to way for bloggers to find each other, such a great community 🙂 Thanks re: Winchester, big Mann fan here, he was one of the greatest noir and western directors so I really look forward to reading when you cover him. Cheers!

  2. Silver Screenings April 16, 2015 / 5:06 pm

    I’ve never heard of this movie or the murders it was based on. But what a great cast! This sounds very creepy but very well done.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon with this (to me) little-known British film.

    • spinenumbered April 16, 2015 / 5:52 pm

      Thanks. To be fair, I only discovered The Flesh and the Fiends in the last 6 months or so myself!

  3. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) April 17, 2015 / 3:22 pm

    A most engrossing review. Burke and Hare continually fascinate us. A musical stage production based on their story played in Toronto a couple of years ago. This film sounds absolutely riveting and immediately goes on my watch list.

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