The Flesh and the Fiends
The Flesh and the Fiends – 1959 | 97 mins | Horror | B&W
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Baker had been an assistant director while Berman had worked as a cameraman for director Michael Powell, amongst others. Throughout the fifties, Baker and Berman made some forty second features to capitalize on the British film quota requirements of the time. In the late fifties, Baker and Berman struck a deal with Regal Film Distributors to make an unconnected series of exploitation films based on fact rather than literature.
Having dabbled in vampires, science fiction and mysterious killers, Baker and Berman selected the famous body snatchers as their next subject and commissioned 49-year-old writer/director John Gilling to pen the screenplay. When Baker and Berman announced their Burke and Hare story they received a letter from the Rank Organisation saying that they had a script on the same subject by Dylan Thomas. Thomas’s script had to wait nearly twenty years to go before the cameras, ultimately as The Doctor and the Devils (1985), directed by Hammer veteran Freddie Francis.
John Gilling had written an earlier Burke and Hare outing – the creaky Tod Slaughter effort The Greed of William Hart (1948) some ten years previously. To avoid any similarities, Baker had Gilling’s script rewritten by noted British scribe Leon Griffiths, while Gilling set about casting the film in the summer of 1958.
Peter Cushing was an obvious choice to play Robert Knox, having already made public comparisons between the anatomist and his acclaimed interpretation of Dr. Frankenstein. George Rose came to the production from a previous Triad success, Jack the Ripper (1959), while Melvyn Hayes had just appeared as the young Peter Cushing in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Dermot Walsh also had a connection with the first Hammer Frankenstein outing – his wife at the time was that film’s leading lady, Hazel Court. June Laverick was a popular lightweight leading actress of the day, having already appeared in such fare as Son of Robin Hood and Follow a Star. Rounding out the cast were two performers who later left indelible marks on the history of horror films: Billie Whitelaw played the terrifying Mrs. Baylock in The Omen while Donald Pleasence achieved screen immortality as the Dr. Loomis in the Halloween franchise.
The film’s understated photography, high production values and superb performances failed to impress the exploitation crowd drawn. In retrospect, The Flesh and the Fiends has gained a tremendous cult following due to its unnerving combination of black humour and gruelling violence and is now recognized as one of the most underrated films from the golden age of British horror, as well as the definitive “body snatchers” film.
Edinburgh, 1828. Local surgeon Dr. Robert Knox (Peter Cushing) relies on grave-robbers to supply him with fresh cadavers for his anatomy lectures on research into the functioning of the human body. Irish immigrants Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasence) take to murder to provide Knox with fresh ‘subjects’. Burke and Hare initially hit upon the idea of providing deceased tenants from the lodging house at which Burke is the landlord to Knox, but when no tenant’s are accessible they resort to enticing elderly or infirm locals back to Burke’s rooms and murdering them. One such instance is the girlfriend of Knox’s wayward student Chris Jackson (John Cairney). Jackson falls in love with fiery prostitute Mary Patterson (Billie Whitelaw), but the romance is snuffed out with appalling insouciance after a particularly ferocious argument between the pair; Mary rushes into the street and immediately falls into the clutches of Burke and Hare. When they deliver the body of Mary to Knox’s laboratory the corpse is seen by Jackson who rushes to the lodging house to confront Burke and Hare. Shortly lynch mobs of townsfolk have made a connection between the murderous twosome and Dr. Knox.
John Gilling: Director
John Elphick: Art Direction
Monty Berman: Cinematography
Jack Slade: Film Editing
Betty Sherriff: Makeup Department
Jimmy Evans: Makeup Department
Stanley Black: Original Music
Monty Berman: Producer
Robert S. Baker: Producer
Leo Griffiths: Script
John Gilling: Script
Jeanne Henderson: Sound Department
Bob Jones: Sound Department
George Stephenson: Sound Department