Director – John Gilling
Cast – Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, George Rose, Dermot Walsh, Billie Whitelaw, June Laverick, Renee Houston, John Cairney, Melvyn Hayes
Release Year – 1960
Reviewed by John of the Dead
Possibly the earliest film telling of the Burke and Hare grave robbing story, The Flesh and the Fiends gives us an awesome tale of greed, desperation, achievement, and the horrors that come along with the desires that stem from them. Expertly written and executed, we are given one of the finest horror films from the 1960s that not only provides good horror but a great story overall that brings along drama dn social commentary for much more than a typical horror experience.
The boundaries of science and ethics are pushed when the famed Dr. Robert Knox(Peter Cushing) begins accepting corpses from two local low-lives Burke and Hare. Dr. Knox cares not where the corpses are coming from, but when the corpses brought in by the two increasingly become fresher and fresher we learn that the two scoundrels are going to extreme measures to make a quick buck from a doctor willing to look the other way in the name of science and medical advancement.
I really love this story and all the different elements it blends into one damn good horror experience. The story is also used positively in The Doctor and the Devils, however it is really sweet to watch this tale in black and white fashion such as this. Writer John Gilling gave us a very well-written screenplay that much like most older UK horror films came with tremendous dialogue sure to wow those who pay attention, and all of the main characters invovled provided good conflict and drama at just the right times. Most of the film centers around the bumbling Burke and Hare who slowly make their way from petty criminals who rob graves and sell the bodies as cadavers to cold-blooded killers who kill the lonely and unloved for extra money paid by Dr. Knox for “fresh” specimens. Watching them sink lower into the hell they live in was great and provided for most of the horror we see, ultimately building up to a horrific fate that I definitely enjoyed watching. On the other hand we also follow Dr. Knox as he battles his ethically sound opponents who fear he may be receiving his cadavers through illegal means (only cadavers from those executed via hanging are legal) and he must consistently weight the factors of medical advancement versus ethics, which eventually plays off as horror in its own right.
Writer John Gilling also serves as director and did a great job selling this piece as he gave us great atmosphere and fantastic sets that made for a visually appealing piece. The horror itself was very well executed and came with a few good shocks here and there thanks to full frontal direction of some of the kill sequences, and along with that came absolutely superb performances from all involved. The acting performances were superb from all involved, and I was especially elated to see horror legend Donald Pleasance(Halloween, Raw Meat)portraying Hare in a role that preceded his biggest roles by over a decade. You should not expect much as far as gore and scares go, but thanks to awesome writing and direction we are given a horror film that gives us much more than just horror with a great film overall.
Overall, The Flesh and the Fiends is a great early rendition of the Burke and Hare tale that gives us a visually appealing experience that delves into much more than just judicial horror but also the horror associated with the desires human beings face and their will to achieve these desires. The dialogue is fantastic and the character performances are marvelous, making for a superb film on all fronts.