The Flesh and the Fiends (released in the US as Mania) is yet another movie version of the Burke and Hare story. This was made in 1960 at a time when hordes of independent film companies in Britain were jumping on the gothic bandwagon started by Hammer, including the very obscure Triad Productions who were responsible for this one.
The story is so familiar it hardly requires re-telling. A prominent early 19th century Edinburgh surgeon, Dr Robert Knox (Peter Cushing), is being frustrated in his attempts to put surgery on a firm scientific footing. How can he teach anatomy if he cannot obtain cadavers, largely because of government regulations motivated by religious scruples. Instructors in anatomy are forced to deal with grave-robbers in order to obtain cadavers, and the supply is still woefully insufficient. Then he meets a couple of rather disreputable types, a certain Burke and Hare, who seem to have a real knack for finding corpses. Surprisingly fresh ones. In fact their secret is that they murder people in order to keep Dr Knox well supplied with bodies.
There’s a romantic sub-plot involving an idealistic student of Dr Knox’s and his less-than-respectable girlfriend. Mary is a pretty girl, but rather fond of drink and having a good time. And rather fond of male company as well. This sub-plot eventually becomes crucial to the main plot, in a way that is wholly unexpected.
Even in 1960 the plot was becoming a bit creaky, but the movie does have some fine actors to help things along. Peter Cushing does one of his variations on the mad scientist theme. His Dr Knox is so single-minded in his pursuit of knowledge and his desire to impart this knowledge to his students that he willfully shuts his eyes to the obvious fact that Burke and Hare cannot possibly be obtaining such an impressive supply of absolutely fresh cadavers by ethical means.
While the film stresses the conflict between science and humanity, a perennial theme in horror since Mary Shelley’s days, to its credit it does stress the very real moral dilemma involved, and that Dr Knox’s zeal is prompted in part by his horror at the ineptitude of his fellow surgeons whose complete ignorance of scientific medicine has caused the deaths of countless patients. The need for proper medical teaching really was extremely urgent. No-on has ever done this kind of role better than Cushing - he’s a monster who honestly believe he is a benefactor of mankind, and the irony is that he really is doing a great deal of good, and that he has become a monster quite unwittingly by succumbing to the temptation to cut ethical corners and by his inability to appreciate that the most skillful surgeon cannot regard himself as a true healer if he loses sight of the value of human life, even the lives of the poor and destitute who are Burke and Hare’s victims.
Class actually plays an important role in this film, not just in terms of Knox’s contempt for the people of the streets on whom Burke and Hare are preying, but also in the romantic sub-plot involving his student. His girlfriend Mary is not only an habitue of seedy drinking establishments, but clearly a part-time whore as well. The student’s shame at being seen in public with such a disreputable woman provides one of the movie’s most effective scenes (Billie Whitelaw’s superb performance as Mary also helps).
The real highlight though is Donald Pleasance’s performance as William Hare. He’s more than creepy - he has a truly terrifying habit of doing maniacal dances whilst his partner commits murders. It’s a performance that combines creepiness with whimsy, a combination that is very very disturbing indeed.
Director John Gilling went on to do a couple of superb movies for Hammer, while producers Robert Baker and Monty Berman did several memorable horror movies before moving on to distinguished careers as TV producers, being responsible for some of the best British cult TV of the 60s and 70s.
The biggest problem I had with this movie was the shamefully awful Region 4 DVD release. It not only made the movie look old and tired, it was also fullframe, which for a movie originally shot in the Cinemascope ratio is a real problem. It’s a pity, since it made what could have been a true classic horror treat into a rather disappointing experience. If you’re going to chase down this movie, make sure you get a decent DVD release in the correct aspect ratio.