After reviewing John Landis’s BURKE AND HARE (our review), a failed attempt at turning the tale of two real-life serial killers into a black comedy, I felt I owed it to myself, and to you, to re-watch THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS starring Peter Cushing and the great Donald Pleasence. This is a good film about William Burke and William Hare, the vile men responsible for Edinburgh, Scotland’s notorious West Port murders.
Back when religion had a stronger grip on medical practices, researchers could only dissect the bodies of criminals who met their demise at the end of a rope. When supply couldn’t keep up with demand, two Irish immigrants stumbled upon a way to fill the demand for fresh bodies after selling a fairly fresh corpse to local anatomist Dr. Knox. The pair felt corpse selling could be a lot more lucrative if they sped up the dying process a bit, so Burke and Hare began murdering the weak and downtrodden that populated their social circle, selling the bodies to the good doctor before the corpses even had time to cool.
Who knows how long they could have kept this up this business arrangement had Burke and Hare not made a couple of mistakes a year after they started. Almost twenty of their victims were dissected in front of Dr. Knox’s students, but when they became less choosy with their victims, their greed and arrogance lead to their arrests, and ultimately, the way the medical profession operated was forever changed.
I’d seen this movie a couple of times before, under the titles MANIA and PSYCHO KILLERS. Even though the presentation was fairly poor and the film was obviously cut to hell, I’ve always enjoyed this flick because of its true crime nature, the overall cold-hearted vibe anb the astounding work of the cast.
Peter Cushing is excellent here, delivering one of his finest performances as the arrogant Dr. Knox. Unlike his role as Dr. Frankentstein, he’s not an evil man, really, just a bit over-ambitious and a tad narcissistic. He’s resorted to desperate measures in a desire to separate himself from his hypocritical colleagues, tainting his ethics and as well as the oath he swore to uphold.
Burke and Hare, on the other hand, are two of the biggest assholes in serial killer history. If you want the details on just how despicable these two men actually were, there’s plenty of info out there (e.g., they killed a deaf boy by breaking his back), and director John Gilling does a superb job at reflecting how despicable they truly were. Gilling’s efforts are helped tremendously by George Rose as Burke, the brutish thug, and Donald Pleasence as Hare, the greasy snake-in-the-grass and overall brains behind their operation. While Cushing owns every scene he’s in, especially one in which he politely rips some colleagues new assholes, Pleasence owns The. Entire. Damned. Movie. If you haven’t seen this movie and are a fan of Cushing and/or Pleasence, you really owe it to yourself to check it out: these are two of the actors’ better performances, and I shit you not.
An interesting subplot involves Chris Jackson (John Cairney), one of Cushing’s eager students, who falls in love with Mary Patterson, the hard-partying prostitute played by Billie Whitelaw. Some of you will instantly remember her as the evil nanny in THE OMEN. Jackson tries turning his alcoholic trollop into doctor’s-wife material as earnestly as Mary tries to dislodge the stick rammed up Jackson’s ass. Their story helps demonstrate the class struggle prevalent at the time, showing how the rich and the poor often mingled in the same establishments when the sun went down in Edinburgh. When their path ultimately intersects that of Burke and Hare’s, Gilling doesn’t take the obvious route. (Thank God.)
My complaints are few. One, I wish the film would’ve touched on the social issues that allowed Burke and Hare to operate for so long before getting caught. Class struggle and media attention for those murdered are as relevant a topic today as they were in 1828 as seen by the daily stories we post on this site. Two, there’s a subplot involving Dr. Knox’s daughter (June Laverick) and her relationship with his right-hand man. Even though Laverick has top-billing with Cushing, she’s barely in the movie, and the entire storyline adds nothing aside from providing Cushing with someone to talk to.
If you decide to check this film out, be sure to go with Image Entertainment’s 2001 DVD release. It comes with both the theatrical cut and the uncut Continental version. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for UK filmmakers to shoot alternate nude scenes for their films to spice them up for foreign markets, and FIENDS was no exception. Having seen both versions, I recommend watching the uncut version and, surprisingly, not for the tits.
I’m all for attractive women showing their titties, as I think women’s tits make everything better. But the added T&A offered in the uncut version — while welcome! — doesn’t do anything to elevate this film like the extended death scenes do. There’s no gore in this film. There’s murder. Cold, calloused murder. Since Burke and Hare’s modus operandi was suffocation, the deaths of their victims take time, and none go without a fight. The added seconds in the uncut version make some of these death scenes more unsettling than they were already. Specifically Burke suffocating an old woman while Hare dances in glee or the extended strangulation of a mentally challenged boy in a pen full of squealing pigs.
You really can’t go wrong with this one, especially if you’re a true crime fan or any bit interested in the case of Burke and Hare. With a stellar cast and memorable performances, Gilling brings 1828 Edinburgh to life with an impressive city-set full of denizens, shadowy alleys, and watering-holes packed wall-to-wall with drunken patrons and whores. Combine all this with a true story of murder-for-profit that remains both socially and medically relevant today (especially with the stem cell debate), and you have one of my favorite true crime horror movies.