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With this seemly arrogant but honest message showing on the screen, the
film opens at a dark Edinburgh cemetery where two vicious figures lift
a cadaver from its grave... "The Flesh and the Fiends" tells the true
story of William Burke and William Hare, corpse-suppliers to the
ambitious surgeon and university professor Dr. Robert Knox. From what
I've read in factual biographies and works of reference (yes, I find
this stuff so intriguing that I study it on the side), the screenplay
is rather accurate and faithful when it comes to the basic re-telling
of the murder cases. Burke and Hare's modus operandi as well as their
negotiations with Dr. Knox really were this clumsy and unscrupulous
while Knox damn well knew about the suspicious methods of the two, but
he couldn't care less as long the study-objects he received were fresh
and supplied regularly. I reckon that writer/director John Gilling then
added some fictional elements to his film, like the characterizations
of the main roles, since Hare's persona is almost blackly comical and
Dr. Knox' attitude is stubborn and typically obnoxious like nearly
every scientist in horror cinema. Still, the escalation of the tragedy
is truthfully illustrated with Burke and Hare getting into the
body-snatching business coincidentally at first, but quickly
specializing in it because of the good cash money and eventually even
converting to murder in order to deliver the most 'quality'.
"The Flesh and the Fiends" isn't just a great historical film, it also is a praiseworthy horror achievement with a uniquely grim atmosphere and very convincing acting performances. John Gilling terrifically revives a 19th century Edinburgh with its low-perspective inhabitants (drunks, beggars and thieves...) and ominous bars and alleys. The murders are very mean and cold-heartedly illustrated (the death of a young unintelligent boy, strangled amid squealing pigs is particularly unsettling) which probably makes this film the most disturbing of the entire 50's decade. Peter Cushing is excellent in the for him familiar role of brilliant doctor but it especially are Donald Pleasance (hypocrite and self-centered) and George Rose (a simple-minded killer) who impress as Hare and Burke. The supportive roles are somewhat stiff and they bring forward redundant sub plots, like the romantic interactions between Knox' daughter Martha and her doctor-lover Geoffrey. The typically Scottish accents are a joy to listen to and the eerie black and white photography emphases the already very chilling tone. This movie is still incomprehensibly underrated and unknown. Maybe because it's not a Hammer production or maybe because the substance was considered controversial for a long period of time. Fact remains that this old shocker is far better than most contemporary horror gems and everybody who has an interest in the obscure should urgently check it out!
The late '50s was one of the most important periods in the evolution of
horror cinema - especially the British horror film, which was
undergoing a radical new wave of gory Technicolour entries such as
Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy. Two men who were
thrust into super-stardom thanks to these movies were Peter Cushing and
Christopher Lee, perhaps the finest horror actors ever to grace the
genre. The Flesh And The Fiends (a.k.a Mania) is a 1959 chiller, shot
in black and white, with Cushing in the main role. The black and white
photography harks back to the style of the older horror films from the
'30s and '40s, but the story is quite disturbing and includes some
pretty grisly scenes more in line with the contemporary hunger for
explicit blood and guts. And, while Christopher Lee might for once be
missing as Cushing's co-star, Donald Pleasance proves himself to be a
wonderfully adept replacement.
In 19th Century Edinburgh, a respected lecturer in anatomy, Dr. Knox (Peter Cushing), goes about his work and outwardly seems to be the perfect gentleman. However, he keeps a dark and disgusting secret from his niece Martha (June Laverick) and her lover Dr. Mitchell (Dermot Walsh). Knox secretly buys corpses from a pair of unscrupulous local grave-robbers named Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasance). With these dead bodies, Knox carries out secret anatomical studies. Burke and Hare, realising that they're onto a lucrative line of business, begin to murder victims rather than simply digging up the bodies of the already-dead so that they can keep the doctor stocked with corpses. This spate of murders doesn't seem to concern Knox too much, even though he suspects that Burke and Hare are the culprits.... so engrossed is he in his experiments that he is happy to turn a blind eye. Eventually Burke and Hare are captured for their crimes, the latter testifying against his accomplice to save his skin (though he is later pursued and blinded by a hateful mob), while - most disturbing of all - the cruel and calculating Dr. Knox is ultimately pardoned for his own part in the affair.
The Flesh And The Fiends is a very impressive horror film, in which Knox is shown to be the real monster by the way he uses his wealth and intellect to exploit the impoverished Burke and Hare. While Burke and Hare's motive is merely to make money, Knox manipulatively allows them to shoulder all the risk by carrying out the grave-robbing and murders that will get him his corpses. The scenes of squalor and filth are very powerfully captured, and the scenes showing dead bodies being dragged from their earthy graves are extremely provocative for the time. Cushing is outstanding as usual, and Rose and Pleasance make a genuinely creepy pair of resurrectionists. Though it might not be the gore-fest that modern audiences seem to demand, The Flesh And The Fiends is a gruesome treat for those who remember what old-style horror flicks were all about.
I'll leave it up to others to debate whether 'Mania' (a.k.a. 'The Flesh and the Fiends') is technically a horror movie. While dealing with horrific events, and told in a fashion with plenty of creepy moments, I would still say it isn't horror myself. Whatever you classify it as it is a seriously underrated thriller with strong performances from an above average cast. Director John Gilling went on to make the Hammer classic 'The Plague Of Zombies' later in the 1960s, and stars Peter Cushing ('Twins Of Evil') and Donald Pleasence ('Halloween') both made a strong impact on the horror genre, so fans will be interested to see this for those reasons alone. Cushing is excellent as the stubborn and driven Dr. Knox who needs a steady supply of corpses to dissect, and Pleasence plays the slimy William Hare, who along with his equally creepy colleague William Burke (George Rose), gleefully fills that need. The only problem is that Burke and Hare have no qualms about where the corpses come from, or whether they need a little "help" along the way. Burke and Hare were real body snatchers, but I have no idea just how historically accurate the events depicted in this movie are. But it certainly is entertaining and worth watching for the terrific performances by Cushing, Pleasence and Rose, and also for Billie Whitelaw ('The Omen') who has a small but important supporting role as the love interest for one of Dr. Knox's medical students (John Cairney - 'Jason And The Argonauts').
Peter Cushing plays a lecturing doctor in 19th century Edinburgh who
must buy fresh corpses to teach his students about the mysteries of
anatomy. While the emphasis is on the doctor and the moral dilemmas he
faces, Pleasance and Rose steal the show as Burke & Hare, no-goods who
hit on the idea of providing their own, surprisingly fresh corpses ...
This is an unbelievably vivid horror tale, gruesome and perverse, years ahead of its time. It has some weaknesses, and a most peculiar ending, but Cushing and Pleasance give two of their best ever performances, Rose matches them, and a young Billie Whitelaw is memorable also. Despite being a film from the 50s, this is absolutely NOT for the squeamish! An overlooked minor masterpiece, every bit as important to its genre as PSYCHO or NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
Trivia: Although "Psycho" is widely credited with being the first film to feature the actual sound of a stabbing taking place, if memory serves me right, this one might have beaten it to the punch by a year ... I'd be grateful if anyone else could confirm this.
This is quite possibly the finest British horror-film ever made--except
that it is 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. Groan all-you-want, but these were the fruits of a form of gross economic-inequality that prevails today. And 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 of 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.
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 on those cold, Autumn-nights. 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!
The Flesh and the Fiends is similar, in a lot of ways, to the Val
Lewton produced Robert Wise film, The Body Snatcher, but for some
reason; this one has flown further under the radar. It's odd, because
despite the greatness of the other film; The Flesh and the Fiends is a
lot better, and has the added malevolence of being based on a true-life
story. The film takes place in Edinburgh, and director John Gilling
does an excellent job of ensuring that the city looks as foreboding as
possible, and the perfect home for a story as macabre as this one. The
film follows the idea of having to break eggs to make an omelette, and
sees Doctor Robert Knox buying corpses from a couple of murderous grave
robbers in order for him to have subjects, from which new surgical
procedures can be ascertained. The real stars of the show, however, are
the graverobbers themselves; Burke and Hare. They begin their careers
by simply taking bodies from graves; but once they realise how
lucrative the business of selling cadavers is, they soon resort to
making a few corpses of their own...
The biggest name in the cast is the one belonging to the great Peter Cushing. Cushing has shown throughout his career that he is capable of a number of different roles, and his role here is one of the best he's had. He gets to sink his teeth into the character of Doctor Knox. In fact, this man isn't a world away from Cushing's world-beating turn as Doctor Frankenstein in Hammer's classic series, which explains why Cushing is so good at it. George Rose and Donald Pleasance give the film its extra dimension in the roles of the graverobbers. Rose is good, but it's Pleasance who really stands out in this film. Seeing him in a role like this is actually quite heartbreaking; as here we see how great he can be, rendering his roles in films like Halloween even more of a waste of time. The plot plays out from a number of different angles, ensuring that there's always enough going on around the central plot to ensure that the film never dries up and becomes boring. It's strange that a film of this quality could fly straight under the radar; but somehow it has. However, copies of this are out there; and it definitely is well worth tracking down!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Aside from Jack the Ripper and Dr. Crippen, the Burke and Hare Case of Scotland (1827 - 28) is the most popular subject for true crime films set in Great Britain. The three best known versions of this story in film are Val Lewton's THE BODYSNATCHER, the present film (MANIA), and THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS (based on a play by Dylan Thomas). They all stick to the basics, which are that a prominent Edinburgh doctor buys bodies from two men (supposedly "Resurrectionists" - grave robbers - but actually murderers)for his anatomy classes. In terms of following the story, MANIA is closest to the actual facts of the Burke and Hare case, even down to the final victims (i.e. Daft Jamie). The three central actors are Cushing (as Knox), Rose (ironically himself a murder victim a quarter century later - as Burke), and Pleasance (as Hare). All three give good performances. A gruesome story, with some occasional good black humor touches. Daft Jamie dies because he threatens to go to the police unless he is paid off. In watching him walk away, Rose says to Pleasance what he makes of that threat. Pleasance answers, "It means Daft Jamie isn't as daft as we thought!" The authors of the screenplay included the so-called comuppance of Hare, who turned "King's Evidence" against his partner (which is why only Burke hanged). According to legend Hare was blinded by a gang who recognized him (though not with a torch but by casting him into a lime pit). Actually, it is more likely he died peacefully in old age, but life is not always fair. The film also ends making it look like Knox has been forgiven. Well, his students did forgive him (he was a brilliant instructor of anatomy), but he was driven out of his city, his country, and ended his day in London working in a clinic (and also being a showman of some Ojibbaway Indians touring England)!
Peter Cushing plays the doctor who needs bodies in this fine adaptation of the Burke and Hare grave robbing case.Donald Pleasance and George Rose are both excellent as the infamous grave robbers.The film is truly atmospheric-full of packed bars,foggy streets and deep shadows-and the performance by Peter Cushing is simply amazing-Cushing is probably one of the most recognizable faces in the horror genre.The film has an eerie cinematic style reminiscent more of films from the 1940's than 1959.The first half of Gilling's story moves extremely slow,but the second half has some gruesome murder scenes.A must-see for fans of British horror!
THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS followed in the wake of the success of Hammer
Films' early successes. Although not actually a Hammer Film Production, it
shares many stylistic points with Hammer. However, the script is a largely
accurate version of the history of the body snatchers, Burke and Hare, and
their main customer, Dr. Robert Knox.
Although there are memorable performances in this film, it is Peter Cushing's work as Dr. Knox that ultimately stands out. During the 1820's in Edinburgh, Scotland, Dr. Knox illegally bought cadavers from Burke and Hare. In spite of every reason to be suspicious of Burke and Hare, Dr. Know persisted in obtaining cadavers from them for medical lectures. To Dr. Knox, the training of competent doctors took precedent over ethical considerations.
In a remarkable scene in the denouement, a little girl in the street begs alms from Dr. Knox. Cushing tells her that he doesn't have any money with him, but if she will step over to his house he will give her some. The little girl politely declines the offer, saying, "Oh, no, you might be Dr. Knox." Cushing's unspoken response is truly unforgettable. It makes you realize that Peter Cushing was really a fine actor. What a pity his talent was too often wasted in pictures that were beneath him.
"The Flesh And The Fiends" of 1960 (other sources say 1959) is a grim,
creepy, terrifying and often sad masterpiece of British Horror cinema,
that no lover of the genre could possibly afford to miss. John
Gilling's film is based on the true case of William Burke and William
Hare who supplied the surgeon Dr. Robert Knox with fresh corpses in
Edinburgh of the 1820s. The film has a very creepy, chilling Gothic
atmosphere, and yet it accomplishes to seem frighteningly real. The
story is incredibly macabre, and what makes it even more frightening is
the fact that the morbid events in this film actually took place. In
Edinburgh of the 1820s, the Medical University is supplied with too
little corpses to properly instruct its students. Determined to provide
the best possible conditions for research, the ambitious and brilliant
Dr. Knox (Peter Cushing) engages corpse-snatchers to supply his
University with fresh bodies. Two of the grave robbers, William Hare
(Donald Pleasence) and William Burke (George Rose), however, have their
very particular methods to bring in corpses that are especially
Aditionally to the terrifying and fascinating story and the gloomy atmosphere, "The Flesh And The Fiends" also profits from a brilliant cast. The great Peter Cushing, was doubtlessly one of the most remarkable and brilliant actors the World of Horror has ever seen (and ever will see), and he is once again excellent in the role of the dedicated scientist - a role that is familiar to Cushing, who is probably most famous for his portrayal of Baron Victor Frankenstein in the Hammer films. Dr. Knox is not a bad man as such, but his obsession for the good cause makes him forget most of his scruples. The arguably greatest performance in this film, however, comes from Donald Pleasence (another favorite actor of mine), who delivers an ingenious portrayal of evil as the unscrupulous Willaim Hare. Equally great is George Rose in the role of the more simple-minded part of the murderous duo, William Burke. The great black and white cinematography provides a gloomy general mood. The cinematographic style of the film is often compared to earlier Horror classics of the 1940s rather than to those of the late 50s and early 60s, and one can see why. The film's theme, however, and the uncompromising manner it is brought to screen, is unspeakably macabre for its time. The film provides terrifying Horror as well as tragic Drama and a very realistic insight in early 19th century society. I guess I am not standing alone when i declare Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence two of my favorite actors. "The Flesh And The Fiends" is arguably the most brilliant film in either man's career, which is saying quite something regarding the variety of ingenious films Cushing ("Dracula", "The Curse Of Frankenstein", "Horror Express" etc.) and Pleasence ("Phenomena", "Prince Of Darkness") have been part of. Along with another Historical Horror masterpiece, Michael Reeves' "Witchfinder General" (starring Vincent Price), "The Flesh And The Fiends" is probably the most mature, serious and sophisticated British Horror film ever brought to screen, and an absolute priority for every Horror lover to see. 10/10
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