The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)
This month marks the centenary of cult screen legend Donald Pleasence, and to celebrate I went along to a special screening of The Flesh and the Fiends as part of the BFI’s Projecting the Archive series.
Based on the Burke and Hare murders that horrified early 19th century Edinburgh, The Flesh and the Fiends blends morbid gallows humour with violence, shrewd socio-political commentary, and a dank and sombre atmosphere. When he cannot legally obtain cadavers for his research, Dr Knox (Peter Cushing) turns to resurrectionists Burke and Hare (Donald Pleasence and George Rose), who use whatever means necessary to ensure the corpses they procure are as fresh as can be... including murder!
While the dark deeds of these nefarious individuals have been adapted for cinema quite a few times throughout the years - Burke and Hare (2010), The Body Snatcher (1945), I Sell the Dead (2009) - The Flesh and the Fiends stands out due to vivid performances from Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, George Rose and Billie Whitelaw. There is an elegance and refinement evident in the literate script, and the crisp performance of Cushing is particularly enjoyable. His presence is complimented by the roguish Pleasence and Rose who ensure Burke and Hare are never just two-dimensional villains. Yes, they rob graves, murder people and other such unspeakable things, but they are also afforded inner lives and their dark camaraderie crackles on the screen.
While we are frequently invited to laugh at them, and sometimes even with them, the film never condones the actions of Burke and Hare. The real horror at the heart of The Flesh and the Fiends lies in the disregard they have for human life, and the ease with which they select their victims and casually murder them. The violence depicted in the film, sudden and blunt, is not the focus; the focus is squarely on the lack of remorse exhibited by the dastardly resurrectionists, and interestingly, the circumstances that put them in this situation to begin with (poverty, greed). The screenplay by Leon Griffiths and director John Gilling offers few sympathetic characters, as everyone appears to be blighted in some way by personal circumstances and the hardships faced by poorer classes in 19th century Britain (the weak-willed student, the tempestuous prostitute, Burke’s long-suffering-eventually-complicit wife etc). It is this characterisation that enriches the film.
Add to this the highly questionable and dubious ethics of Dr Knox (whose morality is painted as entirely ambiguous), and his detached, cold willingness to accept the bodies of those he suspects have been murdered by the two body snatchers. He believes he is justified in his decisions as he is working to further humankind's knowledge of science and anatomy. And he seems chillingly unperturbed that he does so at the cost of the lives of others...
While the script probes the question ‘who is the real monster?’, the final scene seems to absolve Knox of his part in the grisly affair, and he is redeemed, even venerated. He is touched by the loyalty of his students and the understanding they appear to have for his intentions and his work. In real life, while Knox was cleared of any complicity in the murders, he was so scandalised his reputation suffered, and his career never recovered. The film’s resolution suggests an injustice that is distinctly class-based.
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 vain 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.