Friday, October 06, 2006

Children of Hammer: The Flesh and the Fiends (1959) review

'Burke's the Butcher, Hare's the Thief, and Knox Is the Man That Buys the Beef.'
--From a 19th Century Scottish folk song

This is quite possibly the finest British horror film ever made--except that it is almost entirely true. The Flesh and the Fiends is nothing less than a fairly truthful accounting of the original 'bodysnatchers,' Burke and Hare who resorted to murder after running out of 'fresh' corpses for a Dr. Thomas Knox, of Edinburgh, Scotland. It is a scandalous story that would never have been possible were it not for antiquated religious notions that it was unholy to disinter the dead--even if approved by the deceased and their survivors--for the purposes of medical inquiry. Shot in an shadowy expressionist black, there are few films that top this in the horror canon. Hammer had some great films, but this is really the capper. Burke and Hare just wanted money to drink and whore. In the squalor of early industrial Britain, there were precursors to Jack the Ripper, and Burke and Hare could have taught Jack a few lessons.

Britain's early industrial poverty spawned rampant licentiousness, disease and violence. When human life is considered worthless, you get a tendency for crime and murder of this type. For those who don't know, Great Britain in the 1820s was the time of Charles Dickens. Dr. Knox was one of numerous aristocratic doctors of his day who had to resort to the employ of bodysnatchers to obtain fresh-cadavers for his anatomical research. Because of this, Flesh and the Fiends is also a tale about scientific ethics--with a wrongheaded ending! Dr. Knox was definitely aware at some point that Burke and Hare were murdering human-beings for money (this all paid handsomely at the time), to provide him bodies. It doesn't get much darker than this. Would we even bat an eye today? In Houston (circa 1960s-1970s), the coroner's office was selling the cadavers of homeless black men to the Department of Energy for radiation experiments. Today, there are organized crime groups who snatch organs from the living and the dead for the highest-bidders! Egads, bodysnatching never ended.The film: it was produced by a tiny independent English studio called 'Independents-International', and is regarded as their best film. It should be, it has a looming style that is unforgettable. Images that remain with the viewer are the film's strong point. It is one of the best black-and-white horror films ever made.

Directed by Hammer director John Gilling, it was also a minor hit, and is easily one of Peter Cushing's best performances. Also noteworthy is Donald Pleascence's performance of the deadly Hare, which is very nuanced. Cushing's performance is also nuanced, illustrating the moral-dilemma that Knox must have felt utilizing the kind of cadavers Burke and Hare provided him. How can you lose with a movie that has him and Peter Cushing?! Everything about The Flesh and the Fiends is convincing, even for such a low-budget thriller. The original negatives of the film were located in the 1990s, so most of the editions on DVD are superb, and contain the 'Continental version' that has plenty of flesh (and fiends) on-display. What a wild-romp, and yet what a chilling parable of the abuses of power in a rotten-era of human-history. It's sad how things aren't very different. You could do worse than to watch this. This is a movie for true horror lovers who realize horror is of human origin. Be sure to check the Brooksfilm (Mel's old company) version of this story, 'The Doctor and the Devils' (1985). It's pretty good, too, though not as good as this. When I saw it as a kid, I thought it was about Jack the Ripper!

A Folk-song About Misters Burke and Hare:


  1. Nice movie, I finally saw it last week. And I enjoyed it a lot!

    The Flesh and the fiends

  2. It's just so solid. Isn't it weird how some of the Tigon and Amicus stuff, this film--are better than Hammer? All by the same-people, but different producers. Sometimes, Hammer could be really restrictive. Christopher Lee has few Hammer films among his favorites. Gilling was a great director, just some great cinematic moments in this movie.