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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Unquestionably one of the most fascinating real-life murder cases in
the history of mankind is the story of William Burke and William Hare;
suppliers of fresh human cadavers for surgeon Robert Knox to study
anatomy upon. The facts took place in the late Victorian era, in other
words a strictly religious time where scientists could exclusively
dispose of the bodies of executed criminals as study material. The lack
of serviceable cadavers spawned the malicious business of "body
snatching". For a good price, lowlife criminals would dig up newly
buried corpses at night and deliver them secretly to the doctors'
houses. Obsessed with the payments, which increased remarkably if the
bodies were fresher, Burke and Hare quickly converted to murder and,
even though Dr. Knox damn well knew about this, he didn't object
because the bodies he got were perfect to experiment with. "The Doctor
and the Devils" is no less than the fifth film version of this factual
murder case and, for some damn reason, just as obscure and hard-to-find
as the other four. Personally, I spent quite a few years finding Val
Lewton's "The Body Snatcher" and John Gilling's "The Flesh and the
Fiends" and I still haven't managed to pick up decent copies of "Burke
& Hare" (1972) and "The Greed of William Hart" (1948). Purchasing "The
Doctor and the Devils" was quite a difficult mission as well but, if
you're also intrigued by the story, it's an absolute must-see! The
screenplay was completed by poet Dylan Thomas (in the 1950's already),
who changed the names of the characters but sticked truly close to the
timing, setting and accurate little details of the murders. The whole
depiction of the murderers as well as their victims (prostitutes,
beggars, ill people and drunks) is depressing and raw, yet amazingly
accurate and even truly disturbing without becoming explicit or gory.
Despite being mainly an American production (with comedy legend Mel Brooks as the unlikely producer) and released during the flamboyant horror period of the mid-80's, "The Doctor and the Devils" truly feels like a good old-fashioned and solid British Gothic movie. Pretty much the type Hammer Studios used to be specialized in. Surely this is no coincidence, given the subject matter and the origin of the facts, but this feeling is also largely created by director Freddie Francis and his overall professional British cast. Francis actually did quite a lot of work for Hammer during the 60's and 70's and has some respectable classics on his repertoire, such as "The Evil of Frankenstein" and "Legend of the Werewolf". The cast, as mentioned before, is pretty great and that only makes it harder to understand why this film is still so under-appreciated. Timothy Dalton is terrific as the ambitious and stubborn Dr. Thomas Rock, constantly battling his superiors and being zealous for the evolution of his profession. But most praise goes out to Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea, both playing their roles of greedy and inhuman killers with amazing vigour. Perhaps a bit sad and redundant is the role of Julian Sands ("Gothic", "Boxing Helena") as Dr. Rock's assistant. His pointless romance with the local prostitute Twiggy is the only weak element in the movie. Other than this, the set pieces are very convincing, the cinematography is excellent and the music is downright enchanting. "The Doctor and the Devils" is a great and genuinely chilling movie that urgently deserves to be catapulted out of oblivion.
"Up the alley and down the street Fallon and Broom sell bones and meat.
Fallon's a butcher and Broom's a thief. And Rock's the boy that buys
At the film's closing, Dr. Thomas Rock(Timothy Dalton)proclaims that he has become a ghost story that frightens children and questioned how it had gotten so far.
A revisionist take on "The Body Snatcher"(..a marvelous film produced by Val Lewton), this film has Dalton portraying a scientist whose skills in anatomy are unsurpassed thanks to his intense study of dead bodies. The law prohibits Rock from using fresh corpses for his research so all he has to use are rotted corpses brought in by grave robbers or criminals hung or animals. He soon enlists the aid of graverobbers Fallon and Broom(Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea)to bring him fresh bodies for proper research not knowing they are supplying him with victims they murder. Julian Sands plays Dr. Murray, Rock's assistant, who falls in love with a prostitute named Jennie(Twiggy)and discovers when he goes to see her how Broom and Fallon get their corpses so fresh.
The whole business of delivered bodies provides a special moral dilemma within the story(..which worked quite well in "The Body Snatcher"). Also, the film is quite an indictment on the plight of impoverished "squalor" who lie slowly dying in the streets and alleyways or drift slowly into the abyss of alcoholism. Director Fisher's camera doesn't shy away from the less fortunate as the film seems to show us first-hand their suffering. Dalton's doctor is actually the sympathetic figure in the film in regards to his recognizing the poverty that his colleagues and peers seem to either ignore or just care not to acknowledge. He honestly desires fresh bodies so that he can make a difference in the advancement of the medical profession moving it from the dark Ages to the 19th Century. It's just unfortunate he has to resort to paying graverobbers for specimens. But, the film does recognize(..like in "The Body Snatcher")that Rock knew very well that some of his specimens may've been attained beyond reasonable means. Thomas' sister provides a detrimental problem to the furtherance of his work as she believes his ways are the works of the devil. His wife is also seen as immoral by the sister for she artistically portraits anatomical charts of the human body. Others question Thomas' work as well, specifically Prof. Macklin(Patrick Stewart, whose role and character is underwritten)who wishes for his unusual methods to be grounds for dismissal.
The major moral crisis, though, comes when a deranged Fallon attempts to murder Jennie and is sought after by Dr. Murray where Rock's illegal researching in accepting bodies murdered might soon be discovered. While he only wishes to advance anatomy to save lives, his accepting murdered bodies is indeed considered immoral and unlawful.
While the material of the film might seem familiar, considering it just really feels like a remake of "The Body Snatcher" and is just difficult not to think of the previous film while watching "The Doctor and the Devils", Fisher's marvelous direction makes up for it. Unlike his Hammer years, Fisher doesn't have to hold back. He isn't held down by restrictions and can display the cruel realities of life such as the squalor in the streets as the epidemic it was. The period cinematography feels fresh and completely genuine. It is quite grim and bleak which might put off many with no hope seemingly in sight for many in this film. Fisher keeps the film, for most of the way, on the dreaded streets so that we have a hard time looking away from the truth.
Dr Thomas Rock is an unorthodox anatomist who runs Edinburgh's School
of Anatomy in the 1800s. Although his associates of the trade see his
work as outrageous, as he discards tradition framework of the medical
establishment. To encourage such knowledge and to dig a little deeper
into his work Rock receives corpses from grave-robbers to make up for
the few he only receives. Things take a turn for the worst when the
slum of Robert Fallon and Timothy Broom find out there's good money in
the job, and go one step further by providing on every occasion a
'fresh' corpse for the unconcerned doctor.
I couldn't help but be slightly disappointed by this Mel Brooks produced Gothic take on the true exploits of the infamous grave robbers of the 19th century, Burke and Hare. I believe Val Lewton's "The Body Snatcher (1945)" and "The Flesh and the Fiends (1959)" to be far superior, especially the way they seem to grab you and take you along for the ride. On this effort, I just couldn't get totally involved. The depressingly glum story was shaped off the late Dylan Thomas' rather old screenplay and is very similar to "The Flesh and the Fiends" in plot devices. The cerebrally literate script has plenty layers to work around with and genuinely makes some interesting observations on characters' behavioural habits, social status and the moral high ground of science. With the latter, we've heard it all before, but somewhat it still compels. Although some of sub-plots don't seem to gel and feel rather empty or under written (like the romance between Twiggy and Julian Sands and the affair between Rock's sister and wife). There's a dankly realistic and more an old-fashioned view within its martial and visual craftsmanship.
Directed Freddie Francis competently illustrates the picture with great aplomb and creates a solid period setting that resembles something out of Hammer studios. There's a nitty gritty vibe drummed up on the grimy sets by such gruesome perversion and dread. Where it lingers on it successfully. The dynamic factor of directing the actors and story seemed a little lacking, despite a suspenseful climax and hearty conclusion. This can be really attributed to John Morris' score, which really hangs there in such an mournfully haunting fashion. Focal photography was atmospherically well-etched by Gerry Turpin and Norman Warwick. Now what a cast! Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Julian Sands, Twiggy, Stephen Rea and Patrick Stewart. A convincing Dalton is excellent as the work heavily sterile and egotistical Dr Rock. The undoubtedly superb Pryce and Rea are truly disquieting as the scummy lowlifes turned cold-blooded killers, Fallon and Broom. There's a wicked morbid sense of humour running through most of their dialogues. A classy Sands, is simply too one-note and a tailor made Twiggy is quite strong in her part as a prostitute.
A hot and cold fable that I only wished it could keep me engaged throughout the whole experience, rather than in patches. Well-made and acted, but bleakly weary and flat.
The story of Burke and Hare is one of horror's all time classics and
has inspired some great films such as The Flesh and the Fiends and The
Body Snatcher, among many others. The story is absolutely rife with
intrigue; we have a central murder plot, plus the reasons behind the
murder as well as the whole 'morality vs science' issue that runs
throughout. The film has a period setting which it carries off very
well, and the excellent cast all turn in great performances which helps
to ensure that The Doctor and the Devils always feels like a very
polished and professional production. The names used in this movie are
not the real life names of the people involved - for some reason,
Doctor Knox has become Doctor Rock and Burke and Hare are now Broom and
Fallon, but anyone that knows the story of Burke and Hare will know
what to expect. We focus on two criminals that realise they can make a
killing by killing people and selling the fresh bodies to the local
Doctor for seven sovereigns a time. It soon becomes clear to the doctor
that the bodies aren't being taken from graves, yet he continues to
accept them to test on...
The Doctor and the Devils is not the best film to be based on this classic story; though I have not seen every film it inspired, I am sure that The Flesh and the Fiends remains the best; though this is certainly an excellent take on it. The film is directed by one of Hammer's best directors, Freddie Francis, and Francis creates the period style excellently; there is nothing about the setting or atmosphere of this film that doesn't make you think that it's all taking place in the Victorian era. The cast is excellent also. The fourth James Bond, Timothy Dalton, takes the central role of the doctor and delivers an excellent performance. He doesn't do the role as well as Peter Cushing did in the 1959 take on this story...but few matches up to Cushing. The duo of Stephen Rea and Jonathan Pryce are the gravediggers/murderers and make up the core of the film excellently. The rest of the cast is padded out by Julian Sands and Twiggy in smaller but important roles. Overall, The Doctor and the Devils is an excellent and sadly overlooked take on the classic story of Burke and Hare and while it may not be easy to come by - this one is certainly worth the effort!
The Dylan Thomas screenplay finally makes it to the screen with a few minor alterations. Based on the Burke and Hare vivisectionist murders, this film has a lot of the feel of the old Hammer movies though for the most part it is played quite a bit straighter. Credible performance by 1960's icon Twiggy. Very good, under-rated small feature.
In the Nineteenth Century, the renowned professor of anatomy Dr. Thomas
Rock (Timothy Dalton) gives classes to neophyte medicine students in
the local university. Dr. Rock uses his assistant Dr. Murray (Julian
Sands) to buy corpses for his experiments from body snatchers paying a
little fortune for the cadavers. When the alcoholic scum Robert Fallon
(Jonathan Pryce) and Timothy Broom (Stephen Rea) overhear the
conversation of grave-robbers about Dr. Rock, they decide to supply
fresher corpses that worth more to the doctor, killing the poor
inhabitants. Dr. Murray has unrequited feelings for the cockney whore
Jennie Bailey (Twiggy) that usually hangs around with the also
prostitute Alice (Nichola McAuliffe). When Dr. Murray discovers that
Fallon has just sold the corpse of Alice, he seeks out the worthless
Fallon and Broom to stop them from murdering Jennie. Will he arrive in
time o save Jennie?
"The Doctor and the Devils" is a stylish drama, but not a horror movie. The costumes, sets and art direction are amazing, with a great reconstitution of the period with muddy streets and dirty people. The excellent cast has great performances, with great names of the British cinema and the story is also good. Unfortunately the screenplay is not good and does not offer the adequate pace for this film. My vote is seven.
Title (Brazil): Not Available
This is a grim, oppressive, stylish take on the Burke and Hare story
that has also inspired such films as Robert Wises' "The Body Snatcher".
As has been pointed out, this production by Mel Brooks's company
Brooksfilms is clearly inspired by Hammer films of the past - right
down to the use of renowned cinematographer and sometime director
Freddie Francis. The look of this film is incredible, with intense
period recreation & depictions of squalor, and limited use of colour.
The actors couldn't be better; the roles are well cast all the way down
the line. It also poses the kind of moral questions that would
naturally arise from such a story: just what should be permissible in
the pursuit of knowledge and hopefully betterment of mankind? How far
is too far; what should constitute the "moral" thing to do? Francis and
his cast & crew do a solid, if not altogether memorable, job of putting
it all together.
This is based on a 1940s screenplay by the great playwright Dylan Thomas, which was then revised by Ronald Harwood ("The Dresser", "The Pianist"). It stars a distinguished Timothy Dalton as Thomas Rock, a doctor / researcher / instructor frustrated with having to settle for the bodies of hanged men for study purposes. So he's supplied with bodies by grave robbers including despicable lowlifes Robert Fallon (Jonathan Pryce) and Timothy Broom (Stephen Rea), who recognize the profit to be made from such an activity. Now, when it becomes a matter of bodies needing to be as "fresh" as possible, Fallon and Broom turn out to be willing to turn to murder to achieve the right product.
The wonderful group of actors also features Julian Sands as Murray, Rocks' young associate who falls in love with world weary prostitute Jennie Bailey (Twiggy), Phyllis Logan as Rocks' wife, Sian Phillips as his sister, Beryl Reid as old Mrs. Flynn, and Patrick Stewart as Professor Macklin. They're all convincing in the kind of environment that Hammer always created so well. Pryce is a standout as the depraved Fallon of whom even Broom becomes wary, convinced that Fallon is enjoying the act of murder much too much. The tale ultimately turns rather conventional, but it's still a tale well told, and Rock is commendably played as a two- dimensional character, no true villain but a man with his own sense of right and wrong, and an attitude of "the ends always justify the means". Often the most intriguing characters are ones that occupy "grey areas", and Rock is just such a man.
Highly recommended to those who favour the Gothic horror of decades past.
Seven out of 10.
Another version of the Burke & Hare grave robber story. On the surface,
this one has quite a few interesting things going for it. For starters,
the script was based on one originally written in the 1940s by poet
Dylan Thomas. That alone would be worth checking any movie out. Then we
have, of all people, Mel Brooks producing it even though it's not a
comedy at all. Freddie Francis, famed cinematographer and Hammer
director, directs this and gives it that sort of throwback Hammer
style. That's the film's strongest asset, by the way. To top it all
off, there's a nice cast with Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen
Rea, Julian Sands, and...um, Twiggy.
So, with all of this, why doesn't the movie work better? Well, the main problem is that it's all so drearily serious to the point of being dull. No excitement, no humor, no suspense. It's definitely not a horror movie, either, in case you were led to believe otherwise. Yes the attention to detail and getting the period right is to be acknowledged but it just reminds me why 'realism' is a double-edged sword in films. This looks realistic to the point of being depressing. I won't say you shouldn't see it because it's intriguing enough to warrant a look. But keep expectations low. If you're really jonesing for a grave robber movie, I would suggest you see the Val Lewton/Robert Wise classic The Body Snatcher starring Boris Karloff instead.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For my money THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS is a worthy horror film for
several reasons. It has a good cast, including Timothy Bottoms,
Jonathan Pryce, Twiggy, Sean Rea, Patrick Stewart, Sian Phillips, Beryl
Reid, and Patricia Neal (whose name I did not note in the cast - she
was the mother-in-law of Dr. Rock). Secondly, it had a screenplay that
was legendary for decades as one of the great unpublished screenplays
by a prominent writer (Dylan Thomas, of all people). Finally, for the
only time in his career comedy king Mel Brooks decided to produce this
work. Despite the occasional dab at horror that was in some of his
spoofs (the Holacaust in THE PRODUCERS - both versions; anti - Semitism
in "the Inquisition" segment of HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART I; the
monsters in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and Dracula, DEAD AND LOVING IT; the
murder conspiracy in HIGH ANXIETY all come to mind), Brooks always
showed the spoof or satire behind the familiar sequences. Here, for the
only time, he showed the grimness of serial killings.
Those points said I have to limit the success. One misses Brooks' humor which leavens even the worse of his films. Still one can excuse it because Brooks did not direct the film (or at least it is not apparent if he did suggest anything). His production standards are high - he is creating the Edinburgh of 1828 - 29. For THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS is the retelling of the Burke and Hare story.
As such it lacks the conciseness and tensions of the fictional retelling via Val Lewton and Robert Louis Stevenson of THE BODY SNATCHER (still the best version of the story), and the best historical account, MANIA. Also it lacks the blank verse approach of Thomas' original screenplay (which was never totally completed). It has been retouched here to make it more approachable as a movie project - which explains why it finally made it to the screen.
The story does show how the murders were committed by Burke and Hare (Fang and Broome: Pryce and Rea), and even goes in greater detail about the luring of the victims and the method of suffocation used. But the variety of the victims seemed better shown in MANIA, and the chilliness of the killings were best shown in THE BODY SNATCHER in the sequences where the blind street singer and the blackmailing Joseph were both killed. Also here the capture of Fang is tied to his attempted rape of Jennie Bailey (Twiggy), a good set piece but not historically truthful at all. But the betrayal of Fang by Broome is correct - and here we see Broome smilingly getting away with it (not like the blinding of Hare - Donald Pleasance - in MANIA, which is not proved as true as of yet). Still, with all the changes, the story is still compelling enough, and the acting still first rate. It is a respectable attempt (as I said earlier) if not the best version of the horrible tragedy of the West Port.
Inspired by the tale of 18th century British body-snatchers Burke and
Hare and their benefactor Dr. Alexander Knox, noted Welsh writer and
poet Dylan Thomas wrote the screenplays for The Doctor And The Devils
in 1953 shortly before his death. Thirty-two years later Thomas
screenplay, with work done to it by Ronald Harwood, was finally
produced for the screen. That film stands up, twenty-five years after
it was made, as a fine example of period drama brought splendidly to
The screenplay is brought to life wonderfully by its cast. Timothy Dalton, himself a Welshman, plays anatomist Dr. Thomas Rock as a man so passionate and desperate to learn more about the human body that he resorts to paying grave-robbers to do so. Dalton brings a strong presence to any scene he's in and his background as a Shakespearean actor is put to good use in scenes such as his opening of the lecture that starts the film or his final piece of narration as the film ends. Believably playing versions of the infamous body-snatchers are Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea as Robert Fallon and Timothy Broom, respectively. Both Pryce and Rea share fine chemistry on screen, making them believable as friends turned body-snatchers with Pryce playing up Falon's obsessiveness and Rea Broom's cowardice. The supporting cast is just as splendid as well including Julian Sands as Rock's troubled assistant Doctor Murray, Patrick Stewart as fellow anatomist Professor Macklin, Beryl Reid as one of the body-snatchers victims, Phyllis Logan as Rock's wife, Siân Phillips as Rock's troubled sister and the singer Twiggy as Murray's prostitute girlfriend in a performance that proves every once in a while a singer can actually act.
Period dramas rely heavily on their production values almost as much as their cast to bring them to life believably with this film being no exception. In particular the production design of Robert Laing and Imogen Richardson's costumes come together to bring to life the two clashing worlds of the film: the clean and cultured world of Doctor Rock and the dirty, grimy world of Fallon and Broom. The cinematography of Gerry Turpin and Norman Warwick helps to aid the production design and costumes as well while the editing of Laurence Méry-Clark bring pace, energy. Tension and even horror to those distinctly different worlds. The film is effectively scored by John Morris, including his haunting main title music. All this under the fine direction of Freddie Francis, himself an Oscar winning cinematographer in his own right. When put together these various elements insure that The Doctor And The Devils is well served by its production values.
The true building block of the film is of course its script. Written by Thomas, with work done by Ronald Harwood, the script is an intriguing fictionalization of the tale of 18th century British body-snatchers Burke and Hare and their benefactor Dr. Alexander Knox. Presumably this fictionalization was done by Thomas to allow him to play a bit loose with the facts and explore the themes he wanted to explore. As a consequence, the film is very much centered around Doctor Rock, a cultured man who believes in the advancement of knowledge at all costs as stated eloquently in the character's opening lines. Yet this belief leads him into murky moralistic waters when Fallon and Broom begin bringing him bodies that don't seem quite right and Rock turns a blind eye to the questionable actions of the two men despite the warnings of those around him. The film also looks at Fallon and Broom, men of the grim and filthier side of London who take up body-snatching and indeed murder for a bit of Doctor Rock's money. Or at least until things go wrong and their biggest attributes, Fallon's obsessiveness and Broom's cowardice, threatens to destroy them. It is the scripts exploration of how the cultured, nobly minded but possibly amoral Doctor Rock is, in his own words, brought down into the slime that bred Fallon and Broom that lies at the heart of the film rather then the murders and body-snatching of "the devils" he employed.
The Doctor And The Devils is not only an intriguing fictionalization of the tale of 18th century British body-snatchers Burke and Hare and their benefactor Dr. Alexander Knox but also a fine piece of period drama. This is thanks to the fine performances of its three lead actors, its supporting cast and its fine production values that brings the worlds of 18th century London to life. It is the Dylan Thomas (and Ronald Harwood) script though, with its exploration of the dangers of science without conscience and its consequences, that truly makes the film standout. Fact is stranger then fiction and, though fictionalized, The Doctor And The Devils proves that saying is still true twenty-five years on.
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