The Flesh and the Fiends (1959) The Flesh and the Fiends / The Fiendish Ghouls / Mania / Psycho Killers (1959/1961) ***

     When you get right down to the root of it, it was a rather stark example of the law’s chronic inability to keep pace with advances in science. In the 18th century, the University of Edinburgh’s medical school revolutionized instruction in the field, with the result that by the beginning of the 19th, the city was one of the three or four most prestigious centers of surgical science in Europe. Students came from far and wide, and in extraordinary numbers. There was as yet no general requirement for formal degrees in the practice of medicine, so simply having studied in Edinburgh, whether at the university or with one of the many private lecturers affiliated with the Royal College of Surgeons, was one of the most impressive items a young doctor could put on his resumé. One result of all this intensive questing after medical knowledge was a huge demand for cadavers to be dissected in anatomy seminars. However, under Scottish law at the time, anatomists were permitted to use only the corpses of suicides, orphans, foundlings, and people who died in the custody of the correctional system. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough, and so the 1800’s saw an explosion of grave-robbing and corpse-selling to make up the difference.

     Live Edinburghers with dead relatives didn’t take kindly to that, of course, and by 1820 or so, there was a veritable arms race on between the resurrection men and the funerary industry. Cemeteries hired night watchmen, bought guard dogs, and even installed watchtowers. It became possible for bereaved families to rent huge stone slabs with which to cover their loved ones’ graves until the bodies within had decayed too far to be of use to an anatomy class. Wealthier families could protect their graves permanently with sealed stone vaults, or temporarily with removable iron cages called mortsafes. Some churches even offered mortsafe subscription services! Robbing graves therefore became both a dangerous occupation and an unbelievable hassle, but still the doctors of Edinburgh needed dead bodies to dissect.

     Consequently, when William Hare’s lodger, a man remembered only as Donald, died of dropsy while owing Hare £4 in back rent, there was one obvious way to make good the loss. Hare and an older friend of his named William Burke contrived to remove Donald’s body from the coffin before it was buried, then took it to the university in search of a buyer. Eventually, the pair were put in touch with Dr. Robert Knox, one of the aforementioned private lecturers. Knox paid generously for the corpse, after which one of his assistants fatefully suggested that the doctor would be happy to do business with Burke and Hare again sometime. Over the next year or so, the two men (with a little help from Burke’s wife, Helen McDougal) murdered sixteen people in order to sell their bodies to Dr. Knox, typically at a price of £8-10 each. Most of the victims were lodgers at one or the other of the killers’ homes.

     It’s a bit ironic, then, that the body of Margaret Docherty, the last to be killed, was discovered by a couple who were renting a room at the Burke place, and who had come to suspect that their landlord was up to no good. By the time the tenants could return with the police, Burke and Hare had already sold Docherty to Dr. Knox, but that didn’t save either of them (or McDougal, for that matter) from arrest on suspicion of murder. Hare turned King’s Evidence to save his own skin, and Burke was convicted largely on the strength of his testimony; the jury at McDougal’s trial returned a verdict of Not Proven. Nevertheless, she, Hare, and Margaret Laird (who was either Hare’s wife or his lover) found Edinburgh rather too hot for them in the aftermath, and they each skipped town separately in the ensuing months. They all disappear from history at that point, last seen making their respective escapes from an angry mob. Burke, on the other hand, was condemned not merely to hang, but to be dissected by the very students who once received his ill-gotten wares. His skeleton remains in the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School to this day, while the Surgeons’ Hall Museum has both his death mask and a book said to have been bound in his skin. As for Dr. Knox, he never faced any criminal charges, but he did become something of a pariah. Even so, he stuck it out in Edinburgh for thirteen years, leaving only in 1842. He continued to work in various medical capacities, both in Britain and on the Continent, until his death 20 years later.

     I tell that story because of something that my regular readers will have noticed a long time ago: the British film industry loved the Burke and Hare case, and the loathsome pair have oozed their way across the silver screen about once per decade since the turn of the 20th century. They or characters inspired by them have figured here and there in several movies that I’ve reviewed already, but this is the first time I’ve ever tackled a proper Burke and Hare picture. The Flesh and the Fiends, produced by Monty “Blood of the Vampire” Berman and directed by John “Plague of the Zombies” Gilling, is the closest thing I’ve seen to an attempt to tell the story with no more sensationalism than it inherently warrants. It dwells in surprising comfort in two little-explored netherworlds: the one between horror and historical melodrama along one axis, and the one between Hammer-wannabe class and “saving a seat for Peter Walker” indie-scuzz along the other.

     One foggy night in 1828, two men (Steven Scott, from The Stranglers of Bombay and Terror of the Tongs, and Raf de la Torre) are unearthing a body from an Edinburgh graveyard. It’s seen better days. Nevertheless, the resurrectionists are able to sell it for five guineas to Dr. Robert Knox (Peter Cushing). Indeed, Knox has not only been expecting them, but considers their arrival important enough to pull him away from the joyous occasion of his niece’s return from a three-year sojourn in Paris. Leaving his handsome young colleague, Dr. Geoffrey Mitchell (Dermot Walsh, of Ghost Ship and The Tell-Tale Heart) to entertain Martha (June Laverick), Knox hurries to his mansion’s back entrance to conduct his business with the body snatchers. It happens, however, that Knox doesn’t have exact change on him at the moment. He gives the grave robbers three guineas now, and makes arrangements for his student assistant, Christopher Jackson (John Cairney, from Marriage of Convenience and Jason and the Argonauts), to bring them the balance at their favorite pub later that night.

     In a roundabout way, Jackson’s mission to complete the resurrection men’s payment alters the course of quite a few lives. Most immediately, it changes his own by introducing him to Mary Patterson (Billie Whitelaw, from Night Watch and The Omen), a hard-partying bar-floozy with whom he becomes almost instantly besotted. Mary’s never had a man with prospects— even such limited prospects as a struggling medical student possesses— sniffing after her skirts before, and the sheer novelty makes Chris attractive to her in a way that he normally wouldn’t be. But of broader significance, those two guineas Jackson hands to the grave robbers catch the eyes of two regulars at the tavern who already had them pointed in that direction. William Burke (Jack the Ripper’s George Rose) and William Hare (Donald Pleasence, of 1984 and Dracula) may technically qualify as gentlemen on account of the source of their income— renting rooms in their shabby townhouses to lodgers even more downscale than themselves— but they’re among the trashiest trash in Edinburgh by every other conceivable standard. Always on the lookout for dishonest ways to make a bob, they pay close and envious attention when the men whom they know to be corpse snatchers, and who were already throwing around more money than this pub sees in a typical week, have yet more of the stuff brought to them by a doctor’s gofer. It’s enough to get them thinking about that tenant of Burke’s (note the small, seemingly pointless divergence from the facts of the case) who just rudely died on him without paying his last month’s rent. The next day, they steal the lodger’s body right out of the coffin, and sell it to Dr. Knox for more cash than they’ve held in their hands at one time in a long, long while, if ever.

     The trouble with windfalls like that is that they tend to make one greedy— especially if one was already greedy to start with. When the next person to inquire about Burke’s spare room turns out to be an old man from out of town (Beckett Bould) with no local friends, no living family, and no employer expecting him to show up for work in the morning, Hare gets a devilish idea. After all, if Knox was prepared to pay seven guineas for a day-old stiff instead of a week-old one, then imagine what he’d pay for one only a few hours old! Dr. Mitchell, who begins taking the delivery when Burke and Hare come calling with their victim in a hamper, almost blows the deal for everyone by asking a bunch of pointed questions about the body’s provenance, but Knox himself is so ecstatic about the condition of the merchandise that he runs roughshod over every ethical qualm that he or Mitchell might have in order to procure it.

     Thus begins a comfortable arrangement for Knox, Burke, and Hare, but an increasingly uncomfortable one for Mitchell— to say nothing of the drifters, lowlifes, and bums of Edinburgh, who must now add Dr. Knox’s anatomy class to the list of awful things that could befall them at any moment. Against that backdrop, the focus of the film shifts to Chris Jackson and his tempestuous relationship with Mary Patterson. Mary’s excitement at having a future to look forward to wanes before the present reality of a boyfriend whose income is routinely already spent before it reaches his pockets, and whose responsibilities leave no time for late-night carousing anyway. She begins petulantly acting out, and despises Chris for a wimp when he doesn’t punish her for it with the brutality that her working-class upbringing conditions her to expect. The couple are at a low point indeed when Mary— awash in self-pity, alone, and blind drunk— falls into the clutches of Burke and Hare. Chris recognizes the body, of course, when he’s told to prep it for dissection the following morning, and God knows where we’ll find roosting space for all these homecoming chickens now!

     The people who went to see The Flesh and the Fiends in its 1963 re-release as The Fiendish Ghouls must have been terribly disappointed. Not that all the sordid things promised by that issue’s ad campaign aren’t to be found in the movie, but “coffins looted,” “cadavers dissected,” and “sadistic deeds” aren’t really the point, let alone “shock upon shock.” What matters in The Flesh and the Fiends is Dr. Knox’s inability to see how he has allowed Burke and Hare’s corruption to seep into him, tainting his research, his teaching, his practice, and indeed the very concept of enlightenment that he holds sacred above all things. With Peter Cushing playing both parts, it’s only natural to view this interpretation of Robert Knox through the lens of Hammer’s Victor Frankenstein, but the actual resemblance is merely superficial. Yes, Knox and Frankenstein alike commit grotesque violations of both morality and professional ethics in their pursuit of knowledge. Sure, The Flesh and the Fiends often shows Knox sparring with his colleagues in the Royal College of Surgeons, just as Frankenstein spars with the local medical guild in The Revenge of Frankenstein. But Frankenstein, from the outset, is self-aware in a way that Knox can never allow himself to be. Indeed, this film eventually asks us to accept the rather ludicrous premise that being forced to acknowledge what he has become is by itself sufficiently traumatic comeuppance for Dr. Knox to open the door to his redemption. Knox sincerely believes that he is doing good for humanity, and in order to continue believing that, he willfully blinds himself to the realities of how and where Burke and Hare keep acquiring all those perfect cadavers. (Incidentally, no— the weird droopy-eye prosthesis that Cushing wears isn’t supposed to be a physical metaphor for Knox’s moral blindness, nor is it just a half-assed way to sneak some monster makeup into a movie that doesn’t need any. The real Robert Knox lost an eye to smallpox in his youth, so the prosthesis is a stab at historical accuracy of a sort.) Cushing’s Frankenstein, in contrast, doesn’t give a shit whether anybody ever benefits from his work; so far as he’s concerned, the accumulation of knowledge is infinitely self-justifying.

     Of course, the biggest difference between Knox and Frankenstein is simply that The Flesh and the Fiends can’t quite bring itself to admit that Knox is a villain. The makers of this film are as committed to inventing excuses for Knox as the character himself. That means The Flesh and the Fiends is really Donald Pleasence’s show when it comes to being monstrous and horrid, and quite a show he puts on. I’ve seen Pleasence play evil before, certainly. I’ve seen him play callousness, I’ve seen him play madness, I’ve seen him play dissipation. But I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve seen him put them all together to play slime. Pleasence’s William Hare is simply gross on practically every possible level. A proud layabout, a shameless coward, an unapologetic disciple of greed, he’s happy to be the devil on Burke’s shoulder, a man who hasn’t any better angels to counterbalance him. He and Burke are also baddies of a Dickensian sort, creatures of hypocrisy and personifications of Britain’s class system run perversely amok. They embody every sin that British culture ascribes to the Lower Orders, but their true evil is an outgrowth of their ambition to lead the parasitic lifestyle of their supposed betters. During their introductory scene, Burke grumbles that his wife has been after him lately to get a job, to which Hare tellingly scoffs, “And you a landlord!” With that exchange of dialogue in mind, it’s no wonder The Flesh and the Fiends resists the temptation to make Burke and Hare grave robbers at the start of their criminal career, as have so many other movies inspired by the same case. Stealing corpses is manual labor, after all, and such a fine pair of gentlemen as these are beneath such things.

     But while The Flesh and the Fiends is well stocked with memorable villains, it’s markedly lacking in heroes. In Dr. Mitchell and Chris Jackson, it has two characters who seem well poised to fulfill that role, but the nature of this story is such that they never quite get the chance to. After all, for either Mitchell or Jackson to be the hero, there would have to be a conflict in which they could take sides. That never happens, though— or at least not until Mary Patterson gets whacked, by which point the film is mostly over. The asymmetry between their scope of action and that of Knox, Burke, and Hare creates the unfortunate impression that The Flesh and the Fiends is just spinning its wheels, even when it really isn’t. This is consequently a movie that demands a lot of audience trust, but also one that rewards that trust reasonably well in the end.

 

 

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