The Flesh and the Fiends

Day Nineteen of the 2010 Silver Shamrock Happy Halloween Countdown!

Happy Halloween Countdown

The Flesh and the Fiends
In just a few weeks Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis’ black comedy about the grave-robbing dou Burke and Hare will be released in the UK.  The cast is loaded with fan favorites, aside from Pegg and Serkis, there is Christopher Lee, Tim Curry, Jennifer Agutter, Ronnie Corbett and Tom Wilkinson under the direction of veteran director John Landis.  It should be good.

Landis’ Burke and Hare aren’t the first time the notorious pair has been the subject of a film and likely not the last. Their story is too compelling to leave alone, which brings us you today’s Halloween Countdown movie, The Flesh and the Fiends. That’s a great title, huh?  It’s an accurate title as well, with William Burke, William Hare and Dr. Knox serving as the fiends and a surprising amount of nudity, mostly naked boobies providing ample flesh; though I’m really sure that the flesh I’m talking about that and the flesh referenced in the title is not the same thing.

In case you’re not up to speed on your gruesome 19th Century fun facts I’ll illuminate: back in the old days medical schools had to rely on the state to supply cadavers for teaching anatomy or for anatomical research.  These cadavers came in the form of executed criminals.  This is not a very reliable way to supply the demand, so many medical schools were paying under the table for cadavers dug up by resurrectionists, the name given to profession of those who traded in freshly exhumed corpses.  Medical school paid more for their subjects if they were fresher.

Burke and Hare had the jump on the competition as they delivered the freshest cadavers to the medical school in Edinburgh.  How did they do it?  They started harvesting the crop themselves; they killed people.

The Flesh and Fiends stars the great Peter Cushing as Dr. Knox, the head of the medical school and chief market for freshly dead bodies; the underrated Donald Pleasence as William Hare, and noted actor George Rose as William Burke.  The performances are tops all around.  The evil of Knox is the evil of arrogance – of intelligence untempered by empathy; this is well-trodden ground for Cushing who plays Knox as a watered down, more introspective version of his Dr. Frankenstein, which seems about right  for the character.  George Rose’s William Burke is the evil of greed and stupidity. It’s the mundane evil that makes relatively normal people do cruel things.  Donald Pleasence comes off as especially chilling as the calculating William Hare, who delights in the killing.  Pleasence’s performance is nuanced, giving Hare a depth of evil that contrasts with the callow Burke.  Donald Pleasence is totally great; it’s no wonder that John Carpenter put him in as many of is films as he could!

There are two things about this film that I found surprising. There are two romantic subplots, one involving Dr. Knox’s handsome assistant and his lovely niece and another involving one of his students, a handsome earnest young man and a pretty prostitute with a heart of gold.  Both subplots are introduced very early in the film and writer/director John Gilling spends a lot of time dwelling on them, which made me think that one or both of these leading man type characters was going to be the “hero” of the film.  Atypically, Gilling doesn’t go there.

The second surprise was the amount of nudity.  There was a lot of it, some full frontal.  I’m not complaining, mind you; I like boobies as much as anyone, but seeing them in a movie made in 1959 was a bit of a shock.

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