SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS! SPOILER ALERT!
Edinburgh 1828. Dr Knox is in need of corpses for his research, luckily for him Irish duo Burke and Hare are able to acquire fresh meat for a more than reasonable price. The more bodies they provide for the good doctor the higher the risk becomes, as they get to a point where they are even having to kill witnesses and folk who suspect them of killing the people they are bringing to Dr Knox. One of the suspicious people is a student of Dr Knox's (Jackson) who falls in love with a pub tart who later becomes one of Burke and Hare's victims that is then presented to Dr Knox. Making Jackson suspicious person #1. But for how much longer can they continue committing these murders before creating too much suspicion?
The Flesh and the Fiends is a 1959 Triad Productions production. It stars Peter Cushing, June Laverick, Donald Pleasence and George Rose. It was directed by John Gilling. In America the film was released under the title of Mania.
At about 10 minutes in we get our first Boobies Flash (I say first because there's more later on at a party in the pub where there's a few topless women about, which was even more surprising as this is what I would have expected from Hammer in the 70s). I imagine for 1959 this must have been pretty strong, but then again it is in black and white. Blood and gore wasn't considered as shocking when it was presented in black and white so maybe it's the same principle. It's hilariously ridiculous though, fair enough she is one of the pub tarts and has been snogging a drunk who has pulled her top down slightly, but she grabs her drink, takes a sip then her top just flops down for a quick flash then she pulls it back up. It's almost as if it's only there to make 1959 audiences shout “Oh my giddy aunt! It's a pair of jubblies!” Hell nevermind the 1959 audiences, it shocked me and almost made me yell out “Oh my giddy aunt!” and I wasn't even born until 3 decades after the film's release (note: in my defence it was purely due to me not expecting to see boobies in a 1959 black and white film.)
Dr Knox gets one of his students, Jackson, to pay the grave robber (not Burke and Hare, this is Dr Knox's grave robber before he hired Burke and Hare) for the body that was brought to him. Whilst in the bar he gets into a pub brawl with a man who has pulled the skirt off Mary, one of the pub tarts. After getting her skirt back for her she offers to buy him a drink, but he declines and leaves. As soon as he leaves the pub he gets mugged by none other than Burke and Hare. He should have stayed in the pub! What's today's lesson? Always accept a drink from a woman. Good advice. Luckily for him she comes out and helps him as he had helped her, this being the beginning of their love and the film's romance plot.
Donald Pleasence's Irish accent continues to amuse me from scene to scene. I don't know what it is, it just sound a bit iffy. That aside Donald Pleasence is great as William Hare. In fact all the scenes with Burke and Hare are good, there's the perfect blend of black comedy and shocking horror. There's one scene where Burke is suffocating an old woman by nipping her nose and covering her mouth, all the while Hare is dancing around them nipping his own nose and covering his own mouth. This I found lightened the mood, we've got the physical horror of a poor defenceless old woman being suffocated with intermittent shots of Donald Pleasence jumping around. In fact this is kept up for the other murders too. Some of them are at times uncomfortable to watch, which is funny because there is no blood what so ever, it's all down to the brilliant acting which creates the shocking horror. The murder sequences are drawn out (as they are usually a suffocation) and allows a lot of time for having the victim wriggle around, screaming and squealing which for me was at times uncomfortable to watch. Each murder has one of them doing the killing whilst the other stands and watches (usually Hare is the one watching) this only adds to the horror, then to lighten the mood there'll be a bit of black comedy afterwards. One example is after they kill Mary, Burke's wife walks in on them and instead of questioning why there's a dead body she questions her husband's faithfulness to which Burke says “Nobody touched her.” and Hare adds “Willy just killed her, that's all.” Instantly creating an uplifting mood after the traumatic scene with Mary screaming and pleading for her life and for him to let her go.
That is nasty, now I know he and Burke killed people, but his comeuppance is after being released from the police station he is confronted by two men who restrain him and burn his eyes out with a torch. Although you just see the torch coming towards the camera then the aftermath of him with burn marks where his eyes where, it's still grizzly.
The film itself, I feel, is made up of 3 stories that intertwine. These stories are:
1.The life of Dr Knox; his striving to better humanity and his constant disagreements with the medical council.
2.Burke and Hare and their search for more corpses to bring to Dr Knox (which for me is the prominent one of the 3 stories, even though the film continues after their story has ended).
3.The love story between Jackson and Mary (which ends just over an hour in).
Although for me Burke and Hare's story is the prominent one, their story ends once they are charged of the murders and receive their comeuppance. Which by this point the 3rd story thread has already ended, in fact that was the first one to end when Jackson went to avenge Mary's murder but got killed by Hare in the process. So this leaves Dr Knox's story which ends with him discovering that in turning a blind eye to Burke and Hare's methods of acquiring his bodies has resulted in him becoming the opposite of what he wanted. Instead of helping mankind with great advances in medicine he has instead become no better than Burke and Hare. He realises this when a child fears him and calls him an ogre. So the ending is the realisation that this seemingly evil man was actually just a poor misguided soul.
“As a child I believed in God and the devil, it took a child to show me what I am now. I have failed. Yes, I have failed.”
The Flesh and the Fiends was pretty good, Peter Cushing's Dr Knox is somewhat similar to his Victor Frankenstein which is always good. Donald Pleasence as I mentioned earlier was great too bringing both shocking horror and black comedy to the role (as well as a dodgy Irish accent). I have to give the film credit for creating shocking horror that caused discomfort without using a single drop of blood, now that's what I call good film making. Bizarre thing is though even with all these really good things the film still didn't seem outstanding to me, from what I've read of other people's reviews for this film they love it and think it's brilliant. But although I liked it I didn't think it was as good as others have stated, now maybe I've missed something I'm not sure, so this is one I'm definitely going to have to give another look. But as it currently stands it's still a pretty good film and worth giving a look, anyone who is a fan of Hammer and the like should also like this. So as for anyone considering watching this, I'd say go ahead and give it a go, after all I'm going to give it a second go.
The Flesh and the Fiends 3/5