Burke and Hare, self-described ressurectionists, have been portrayed on film many times over the years and such is the case here in The Flesh and the Fiends starring Peter Cushing. Though they might have called themselves as such, they never raised the dead back to life, merely murdered people and sold their bodies for profit, usually to a Doctor Knox, who just so happens to be played by Cushing in this film. Based upon the true events of their lives, perhaps embellished a little bit here and there for dramatic effect, The Flesh and the Fiends paints an eerie and disturbing picture about the early days of medicine and the lack of ethics, not to mention morals, that some people had.
The film itself focuses not only on Dr. Knox, but upon his secondary assistant Jackson who falls in love with one of the local girls. While working for Knox, Jackson is usually front and center when the bodies that the good doctor needs are delivered. Soon he and Dr. Mitchell, Dr. Knox’s first assistant, become suspicious about the seeming freshness of said bodies. One night while working late, a new specimen is brought in and it is none other than Jackson’s girlfriend Mary, killed by Burke and Hare. Things eventually spiral out of control and Jackson as portrayed by John Cairney, is murdered as well and after a little investigation, the culprits are soon found out.
The selling of bodies for profit is not a new idea or practice, having been done for many years by the criminal element and recently transformed into the harvesting of organs. Burke and Hare were probably not the first people to ever do as such, but they remain two of the more famous because of the notoriety that their case received. The problem with those two was the simple fact that they were lazy, killing essentially where they lived and worked. If they had been a little more creative, there is a good chance that they may never have been caught and we would not have had this film or any of the others that have been made about the duo over the years. In this movie, they are played to perfection by George Rose and the legendary Donald Pleasence. Pleasence particularly was creepy as the lecherous and conniving William Hare who turned on his partner at trial. It is perhaps one of his finest roles and he is utterly convincing as the murderous villain, even though he would go on to play many memorable parts over time.
Cushing is the star of the show though and he too puts in a fantastic performance, one given not too long after his starring role as Victor Frankenstein for Hammer Films. Both roles had a little in common, one being that Cushing would again play a doctor and the second being that both experimented on bodies, though for his part, Frankenstein would pervert science while Knox was trying to further it. Like Pleasence, Cushing would shine exceptionally bright in the film with many good moments where the viewer would be privy to just how talented the man was. The second to last scene of the film would be his best in this picture where he is on his way home from the medical council and he stops to talk to a little girl. The look on his face after the encounter was utterly tragic, like his entire world had been shattered when he finally realizes through her eyes just what a monster he had become. Whether that actually happened or not is one thing, but at least in the film, you gain a little empathy for the man as you discover that he has feelings just like the rest of us and that even though he went about things the wrong way, he was just trying to do good in the manner he thought best.
In all, John Gilling wrote and directed a very fine picture with The Flesh and the Fiends, also known as The Fiendish Ghoul and Mania for some reason or other. It is a picture of subtle horror with moments of outright brutality which ends up being thoroughly entertaining, if not a little disconcerting. The Flesh and the Fiends is a true underrated classic of the genre.
4 out of 5