setsuled: (Skull Tree)

The subject of the Burke and Hare murders even attracted, of all people, the poet Dylan Thomas who published a screenplay adaptation in 1953. It wasn't until 1985 it was actually turned into a film, The Doctor and the Devils, though Thomas' screenplay was given a new polish by Sir Ronald Harwood. Directed by Freddie Francis and produced by Mel Brooks, the film has some truly stunning production design but lacks the courage of The Flesh and the Fiends, unfortunately modifying Thomas' screenplay in the hopes of attracting a wider audience.

Timothy Dalton plays what is likely the most dashing incarnation of Robert Knox, here renamed Thomas Rock. The action's also moved from Edinburgh to what is apparently London for some reason, most of the characters have been made English. Burke and Hare, renamed Broom and Fallon, are still Irish though you wouldn't know it from the accent put on by Jonathan Pryce, who plays Fallon.

Otherwise such a fine actor, I don't think I've ever heard such a colossal failure to achieve an accent. He sounds Russian. He sounds even worse when contrasted with Broom, played by Stephen Rea, who of course sounds perfect.

That's Julian Sands as the romantic lead, basically the same character as the student in Flesh and the Fiends, both men have difficulty adjusting to their love for the prostitute, played by Twiggy in The Doctor and the Devils and renamed Jennie.

Twiggy doesn't seem nearly as hardened by life as Billie Whitelaw's version of the character and her reluctance to have a relationship with Sands' character comes from less clear motives. The movie splits the prostitute into two characters, giving Jennie a best friend named Alice (Nichola McAuliffe) who has a nice scene with Dalton where she thanks him for saving her brother's leg. This is a subplot resembling one from The Body Snatcher and is nice because it shows the Knox character actually putting his study to use in helping people rather than arguing on less tangible philosophical grounds.

The primary reason for the splitting of the characters is so one of them doesn't have to die. This results in a very lame, Hollywood climactic fight scene between Sands and Pryce that makes absolutely no sense.

Patrick Stewart, who himself played Knox for a BBC radio play a few years prior, is in the movie as one of the medical board in conflict with Dalton's character. The two have a very nice scene where they both present arguments over a pair of human kidneys in a jar.

The score by John Morris is nice but the best thing about the movie is by far production design. The dirty London streets are marvellously detailed with vegetable and egg stalls, colourful extras playing beggars, tinkers, prostitutes, and etcetera.

setsuled: (Doctor Chess)

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.


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