The Flesh and the Fiends – UK, 1959 – overview and reviews

 
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[Total: 7   Average: 3.6/5]

‘Murder was their business!’

The Flesh and the Fiends is a 1959 British horror feature film about Doctor Robert Knox who purchases human corpses for research from an obliging pair named Burke and Hare.

In the UK, the film was released on 2nd February 1960. In the US, the film was initially released as Mania and then by Pacemaker Pictures as The Fiendish Ghouls.

Directed by John Gilling (The Plague of the Zombies; The Reptile; The Night Caller; The Gorgon) from a screenplay co-written with Leon Griffiths (Ghost Squad TV series; The Hellfire Club), the Triad Productions movie stars Peter Cushing, June Laverick, Donald Pleasence, George Rose, Renee Houston, Dermot Walsh, Billie Whitelaw (The Omen), John Cairney and Melvyn Hayes.

Gilling has previously tackled the same story as The Greed of William Hart (1948) which stars Tod Slaughter. Producer Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman also made What a Carve Up; Jack the Ripper; The Crawling Eye and Blood of the Vampire. A stronger Continental unclothed version was also shot.

Blu-ray release:

The Flesh and the Fiends will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on July 7th 2020 via Kino Lorber Studio Classics, newly mastered in 2K. The alternate U.S. cut, as Mania, is also included. Special features:

  • Mania alternate cut
  • Audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas
  • Trailers

Reviews [click links to read more]:

“A socially minded period horror with a shrewd focus on the hardships suffered by lower classes during the 19th century, The Flesh and the Fiends was released the same year as Psycho (1960), and in a similar vein to that film, it does not shy away from humanising its murderous antagonists, which at times makes for an unsettling, thought-provoking and, thanks to Pleasence and Rose, darkly humorous viewing experience.” Behind the Couch

“One gets a sense of how one crime leads to another, how small misdeeds cause larger ones. Cushing plays Knox as he plays Frankenstein: cold, clipped, emotionless, and driven towards “truth” at all costs. Pleasence, in one of his first great roles, gives Hare a sick sense of humor and even a crafty charm.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers

“Cushing’s Dr Knox is not unlike his Baron Frankenstein in that the character is obsessed with his work and willing to disregard murder for the sake of it. Cushing plays him as a snobbish and cold upper cruster, clutching a handkerchief to his nostrils as the stiffs are carted in, and gathering his peers at a gala for the sole purpose of mocking them and flaunting his superior knowledge..” DVD Drive-In

“The production values of The Flesh and the Fiends outshine the House of Hammer. The sets are rich and detailed, with ceilings in Knox’s hallway and livestock quartered in the filthy alleys (mews?) […] Gilling the director has a good eye for camera placement and atmosphere and the rowdy goings-on in the bars and brothels actually have some life to them.” DVD Savant

“Gilling and art director John Elphick give the film a grimy period flavour worthy of Hogarth or Dickens. And, though we get to see several cheesy corpses sploshing into Dr Knox’s preserving brine, numerous brutal murders and a climactic spot of eye-branding, the real horror of the picture lies in the ease with which ordinary people can turn to violence, while the hypocritical and self-serving social debtors turn a blind eye to it.” Jonathan Rigby, English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema

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” …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.” Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings

Donald-Pleasence-George-Rose-Flesh-and-the-Fiends-1959

“The director does a decent job of creating 19th century Edinburgh with dark alleys, seedy pubs and squalid houses. There’s also a very nasty underlying vibe here, not only for the fact that is a true story but in the manner in which it’s all presented. Seeing a young retarded boy strangled to death in a pigsty is still unsettling today.” Popcorn Pictures

“It is a picture of subtle horror with moments of outright brutality which ends up being thoroughly entertaining, if not a little disconcerting. The Flesh and the Fiends is a true underrated classic of the genre.” The Telltale Mind

“Exemplary performances highlight this superior chronicle of the West Port murders, complemented by confident direction from Gilling. Cushing is a standout as the clinical Dr Knox – a paradigm of control – and Pleasence is delightfully sinister as Hare.” The Terror Trap

“The films highlights are undoubtedly the murder scenes were Gilling, the action director, is in his element. The murder of Esme Cameron’s gin-sot Aggie is a fine example of Gilling’s work, with Burke suffocating the old woman while Hare dances are grotesque jig. The scene juxtaposes casual brutality with black humour…” John Hamilton, X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film: 1951 – 1970

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Choice dialogue:

Martha: “I exercised a woman’s privilege. I changed my mind.”

“Excuse me, sir, there are two gentlemen here with a stiff.”

Doctor Knox (Peter Cushing): “Is the feeding of worms more sacred than the pursuit of truth?”

William Hare (Donald Pleasence): “This one’s as fresh as a new cut cabbage.”

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Cast and characters:

  • Peter Cushing … Doctor Robert Knox
  • June Laverick … Martha Knox
  • Donald Pleasence … William Hare
  • George Rose … William Burke
  • Renee Houston … Helen Burke
  • Dermot Walsh … Doctor Geoffrey Mitchell
  • Billie Whitelaw … Mary Patterson
  • John Cairney … Chris Jackson
  • Melvyn Hayes … Daft Jamie
  • June Powell … Maggie O’Hara
  • Andrew Faulds … Inspector McCulloch
  • Philip Leaver … Doctor Elliott
  • George Woodbridge … Doctor Ferguson
  • Garard Green … Doctor Andrews
  • Esma Cannon … Aggie
  • Geoffrey Tyrrell … Old Davey
  • George Bishop … Blind Man
  • Beckett Bould … Old Angus (as Becket Bould)
  • George Street … Publican
  • Michael Balfour … Drunken Sailor
  • Steven Scott … Grave Robber (as Stephen Scott)
  • Raf De La Torre … Grave Robber
  • Steven Berkoff … Medical Student (uncredited)

Filming locations:

Shepperton Studios, Shepperton, Surrey, England in May 1959

Technical details:

  • 94 minutes (uncut) | 93 minutes (cut)
  • Black and white
  • Aspect ratio: 2.35: 1 – Dylascope
  • Audio: Mono (Westrex)

Trivia:

Some crowd scenes were reused footage from David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948).

Related:

Burke and Hare: Notorious Murderers – article

Burke & Hare – UK, 1971 – reviews and HD film free to watch online

Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde – UK, 1971 – Scream Factory Blu-ray details announced

Burke and Hare: Notorious Murderers – article

The Unsubtle Art of Body Snatching – article

Burke and Hare – UK, 2010 – overview and reviews

I Sell the Dead – USA, 2008 – reviews

Some image credits: The Telltale Mind

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