The Flesh and the Fiends

10/22/2020 06:36

Film: The Flesh and the Fiends

Year: 1960

Director: John Gilling

Writer: John Gilling and Leon Griffiths

Starring: Peter Cushing, June Laverick and Donald Pleasence



This was a movie that I never heard of until I believe a podcast covered this on an episode way back in the day. It was one I added to my list of things to check out and it periodically would pop up. I didn’t realize until sitting down to watch this that it featured Peter Cushing and some early work from Donald Pleasence. I did realize pretty early on that it followed some real events as well. The synopsis is in 1828 Scotland, Edinburgh surgeon Dr. Knox (Cushing) does medical research on cadavers he buys from murderers Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Pleasence), without questioning the unethical procurement methods. 

We actually start this movie learning of these methods. Medical schools needed bodies to teach students to perform autopsies on. The problem that I’m gathering is that, unless you donated your body to science, which most people didn’t, they didn’t have the bodies to work on. That is why in the beginning we see a couple of grave robbers digging up a corpse and bringing it to Dr. Robert Knox’s school. He doesn’t pay them as much as they were hoping, since it had been in ground for some time which they’re not happy about. 

Also at this school is his associate, Dr. Geoffrey Mitchell (Dermot Walsh). He seems to be a more practical guy and less rough around the edges. I state this as Dr. Knox is willing to blur the laws of legality and will challenge his peers. There’s a bit of a God complex here though as he does feels superior to them. 

It appears that Dr. Knox is a good teacher and really wants to help his students. We see this in the form of Chris Jackson (John Cairney). The two talk about a lecture where we learn that Chris is struggling in his classes. He wants to see what can be done, but Dr. Knox won’t coddle him. It does appear that Chris is struggling to make ends meet, which could be part of the problem with his grades. Dr. Knox offers him a position that will help as he works alongside with Dr. Mitchell and another associate to receive in the bodies they use in lecture. 

One of Chris’ tasks is to go to a local pub where they’re going to pay for the drinks of the grave robbers. It is a rough place and Chris protects the honor of a woman there by the name of Mary Patterson (Billie Whitelaw). When he’s attacked in the street, she takes him home to a less savory place to seduce him. Chris falls in love almost immediately and wants to court her. She agrees after she realizes he is serious. 

Also at this bar that night is the duo of William Hare and William Burke. They see the grave robbers and the money they’re flaunting. They don’t really seem like two that like to do actual hard work. When they go back to Burke’s place, they learn an elderly resident passed away. Helen Burke (Renee Houston) uses their house to board residents and Burke is upset that this man owed him money. Hare sends Helen on an errand as he comes up with a plan. They take the body to Dr. Knox and they’re rewarded handsomely. The duo decides to pick off others in the area to live like kings and they’re paid well for it. 

That’s where I’m going to leave my recap for this movie as I feel that gives the information that is needed to know. This movie is quite interesting in that Burke and Hare were real people. I’ve watched a documentary episode on these two as well as seen some of the movies that are loosely based on their lives. From all accounts, they did some pretty horrible things, but they’re also living in a society where they didn’t have a lot of options either. Not to excuse murder, but you sometimes have to do what you have to do to survive. 

The first thing that I really want to delve here is in the society that they’re living. The year given and how they’re living, this is Victorian Scotland. I find this an interesting place to set it since most times you would focus more on London. Being that we’re in Edinburgh, I know that is a large city, but there is also being some isolation having it in Scotland. It is still a tie-knit community which we get to see when the mob mentality comes into play later.

Next I want to take it to Dr. Knox. He’s a good character from everything that I see. He’s being handcuffed though by the society he is living in. There is a question tossed to him about why parliament doesn’t approve of using bodies for their research and scoffs at the idea. Religion really seems to be the big reason there. Dr. Knox is an atheist at the start of this movie for sure. He is a man of science. He ruffles the feathers of his peers and this comes into play later when he is facing his fall from grace. There is a great scene where he wrote an article, calling one of them a murderer for malpractice and Dr. Mitchell tries to get Dr. Knox to back down a bit. He knows what Dr. Knox is doing, but it could be his downfall if this ‘enemies’ discover the truth. Dr. Knox isn’t wrong though. He doesn’t care and has suspicions they’re doing the same thing. There is a change in his character near the end though that I like. I don’t agree with it necessarily though.

I’ve leaned in this a bit already, but there are the characters of Burke and Hare. I don’t know if Hare was as villainous as Pleasence plays it, but it is an interesting take. They don’t want to rob graves and that was mentioned when they see the grave robbers living it up. This plays it as a matter of circumstance that they arrive home the morning after a night out to find that someone has passed away in the boarding house. Hare is one behind this where I feel Burke is more of the muscle. I’ve said that I can’t put the entire fault on them. They’re poor with little means or circumstance. They take advantage of this first, natural death. The problem becomes they get a taste and resort to murder as the bodies net more money being fresh. My issue really comes when they start to flaunt their money and use it to create more victims. It really is an interesting look at capitalism and greed for sure. 

The last little thing is the dynamic with Chris and Mary. He seems like a good guy who is a bit naïve. He finds her attractive and she sees him as above her in society. This becomes an issue is that Dr. Knox states that he doesn’t think that Chris’ head is in studying and seeing him with Mary, that makes sense. This also helps to spark to the climax as well. There is a scene where Dr. Mitchell, when he’s out with Dr. Knox’s niece of Martha. Mary shows that she’s not as educated and it embarrasses Chris. The other two just ignore it and let them go on their way. Mary yells at Chris who has to butter her up. This showed me that it is a toxic relationship and it just grows.

I’ve already said a bit about the acting. Cushing is a legend and I like to see Pleasence in a different role from what I’m used to. Both do an excellent job in bringing these characters to life. Laverick is fine in her small role where I would say that Whitelaw does much better despite lower billing. Rose is solid in support of Hare. Houston, Walsh and the rest of the cast also round this movie out for what is needed as well.

Really the last thing to go over would be the effects here. This movie is in black and white, so that does help to hide things. It really isn’t that type of movie though either. There is a great scene where Dr. Mitchell and Hare go back and forth about a bruise on a cadaver’s forehead. Aside from that, the way they kill people is realistic as they want to make it look like natural causes without doing a full examine for the truth. The cinematography is also fine in my opinion.

That’s all I really wanted to delve into with this movie. The true story of Burke and Hare is both a creepy and interesting one to see play out. I like the changes that are made here with the acting. Pleasence does great in making Hare into such a villain and the things he’s willing to do with Burke as more of the muscle. There is a good duality though with Dr. Knox and his reputation on the other side as well where Cushing has an amazing performance. I like to see how things play out and where it ends up. There aren’t a lot in the way of effects, but it doesn’t necessarily need them and the cinematography was good. The soundtrack fit for what was needed. It doesn’t necessarily stand out either. I would rate this as a good movie for sure. I will warn you it is from 1960 and black and white. If that’s an issue, avoid it. If you’re interested in this story, I would say to give this a viewing then.


My Rating: 8 out of 10