One of the forgotten classics of British cinema, The Flesh and The Fiends (1959) is a blackly comic, almost disturbingly vicious black-and-white horror thriller. Telling the true story of Edinburgh grave robbers Burke and Hare and their dealings with the eminent anatomist Dr Robert Knox, the film bears a superficial resemblance to Terence Fisher's first two movies in the Hammer Frankenstein series (1957, 1958), but makes for a far more cynical, realistic, and uncomfortable viewing experience.
On the back of his recent Hammer hits, Peter Cushing was cast as the amoral Dr Knox in this film, and plays the character with the same arrogance he brought to his Baron Frankenstein. However, despite his top billing, Cushing is by no means required to carry The Flesh and The Fiends, and is instead merely one of an ensemble of actors who deliver almost universally fine performances. Most notable are George Rose and Donald Pleasence, who are both hilarious and chilling as the feckless body snatchers. Pleasence is particularly striking as the selfish, cowardly sociopath Hare, his shabby appearance, evil leer, and sudden lapses into excitable anger and panic being a world away from the controlled stillness of his more famous villains in the likes of You Only Live Twice. Billie Whitelaw is also extraordinarily effective (and extraordinarily sexy) as a hard-faced prostitute who falls victim to the murderous duo.
Produced by the team of Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman shortly after they had a moderate hit with their unremarkable Jack The Ripper (1959), the most impressive thing about The Flesh and The Fiends is the sheer scale of the production, which runs to some truly enormous interior and exterior sets and seemingly hundreds of extras for the crowd scenes (of which there are quite a few). In this regard, the film is a world away from the flamboyant and colourful, yet claustrophobically small-scale action of most Hammer horror films; in terms of scale, The Flesh and The Fiends is more reminiscent of historical epics such as David Lean's films of Dickens.
After a decade of making unremarkable (and mostly low-budget) thrillers, director John Gilling got his first horror movie gig with this movie, and rarely made films outside the genre thereafter; most of his later career was spent working in television. The Flesh and The Fiends is easily Gilling's best film, and certainly does not deserve its relative obscurity, particularly in its native country.
This Region 1 DVD of The Flesh and The Fiends is a good example of how the format can be used to make the most of films that exist in several different versions, such as when older films have been cut to ribbons (for a variety of reasons) over the years. Included here are both the original British release print of the film, and the more explicit `Continental' version, featuring slightly more violence, and even topless shots of some very game female extras in the brothel scenes (and maybe I'm overly prudish, but for me there's something not quite right about nude scenes in black-and-white films; the two things just don't go together somehow).
As well as the two complete versions of the film, the DVD also features the opening credits sequence of an abridged version called simply Mania, and a trailer for the movie, advertising it under the all-purpose title The Fiendish Ghouls; this DVD really does put to shame the bare bones releases of Hammer movies from the likes of Warner Bros. About the only thing missing is a commentary, but as Gilling, Cushing, Pleasence, and Rose are all (sadly) long gone, no obvious candidates for such an effort present themselves anyway.
REVIEW: Matthew Mercy
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks