If anyone ever tells you the poor aren't good for anything, remember the story of the 19th century Doctor Robert Knox and remember the corpses of those who died in poverty can always be used for medical experiments. 1960's The Flesh and the Fiends is the second film to be based on the true story of the Burke and Hare murders, the first being the wonderful Boris Karloff and Henry Daniell 1945 film The Body Snatcher, in turn based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson. The Flesh and the Fiends is a far less compromising film and creates a wonderfully grimy, chaotic atmosphere in 19th century Edinburgh where the wealthy medical men practice and study surrounded by a sea of ragged beggars, prostitutes, and the variously miserable unemployed.
Peter Cushing plays Knox this time, for most of the film with a more prickly demeanour than Henry Daniell before him. One of the reasons this story keeps being adapted is because it presents such a provoking dilemma, a dilemma which reflects the philosophical conflict at the time between pragmatic progress and sensitivity for the exploited underclass. Knox argues that the laws regarding what bodies may be used to advance medical science are too strict, and indeed, with such a shortage of fresh bodies it's difficult to find the necessary models with which he can instruct his students. The other side of the issue is argued by the circumstances that occur--by paying well for fresh bodies, he indirectly encourages the likes of Burke and Hare to acquire corpses that are just a little too fresh.
In this adaptation, instead of plaintively, desperately arguing the justifications for his actions like in The Body Snatcher, Cushing's version of Knox is stiff and firmly convinced of a need to maintain composure at all times. His main tactic of defence is offence and whenever he sees the men on the medical board who might chastise him for acquiring illegal corpses he shows he's well up on every minor infraction of medical ethics perpetrated by his accusers and throws them back in their faces.
George Rose plays Burke and a young Donald Pleasence, unrecognisable with a mop of dark hair, plays Hare, both actors doing a great job of making these men utterly repulsive. They inhabit a world of people at the ends of their ropes, barely surviving and getting dead drunk whenever possible. The two run a lodging house, which is where they ensnare most of their victims.
A subplot involves one of Knox's students (John Cairney) and his love affair with a prostitute, Mary Patterson (Billie Whitelaw). Patterson was one of the real life victims of Burke and Hare. The film's portrayal of the frequently topless women cavorting in dingy taverns is surprisingly unrestrained even for a relatively low budget British horror film from the time.
The relationship between the student and the prostitute helps to bring out the contrast between class attitudes. A chance encounter between the couple and Knox's niece (June Laverick) with her beaux shows the upper and lower classes were so different as to easily convince themselves they were separate species--a handy state of affairs when the better off need to exploit the less fortunate.
My review for 1945's The Body Snatcher can be found here.
My review for Medicinal Purposes, a 2004 Doctor Who audio play based on the Burke and Hare murders, can be found here.