The Flesh and the Fiends (1959)

Article #1681 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-21-2005
Posting Date: 3-20-2006
Directed by John Gilling
Featuring Peter Cushing, June Laverick, Donald Pleasence

When two criminals discover they can be well paid for procuring bodies for an eminent surgeon, they begin murdering people to get the money.

Like the tales of Rasputin and Richard the Third, the story of Burke, Hare and Dr. Knox is one of those historical stories that also qualifies as a fit subject for horror movies. It’s an ideal story for the cinema; it’s not only lurid and sensationalistic, it touches upon any number of subjects; it raises intriguing questions about morality, hypocrisy, class consciousness, and the conflict between religion and science. To its credit, this movie does touch upon all of those subjects at one time or another, and manages to be a horror movie and a compelling drama at the same time. The sturdiness of the script is one strength, and it’s also very well directed. However, the biggest strength here is an excellent and well-conceived performance by Peter Cushing. His Dr. Knox is a fascinating character; he’s fearless and dedicated to his cause, but he’s somewhat blind to his own moral culpability in the matter, and the deformity of one of his eyes is just the movie’s way of pointing out that he doesn’t see as well as he could. It’s fascinating how well certain characters match up; when the chips are down, Dr. Knox will throw Burke and Hare to the dogs, and Hare will do the same to Burke. The doctor who dislikes and suspects Burke and Hare refuses to give them up to the police, whereas Dr. Knox has no such qualms. The movie also features an excellent performance from Donald Pleasence as the decrepit, foppish cane-twirling Hare, and it’s fascinating to watch how in subtle ways he paves the way for his betrayal of Burke later on, though this does not save him. The best moment of the movie for me is near the end, where a child is able to make Dr. Knox understand something that his fellow doctors and the mob could not do; Cushing is simply exquisite in this scene. The rest of the cast also does quite will, and this perhaps the best movie I’ve seen to tell this tale (bearing in mind that the equally excellent THE BODY SNATCHER is not the Burke and Hare story per se).


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