Saturday, September 12, 2009


The Flesh and the Fiends (1960). Starring Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance, Billie Whitelaw, George Rose. John Cairney. Directed by John Gilling.

Something of a forgotten classic, The Flesh and the Fiends is based upon the exploits of Burke and Hare, two infamous gentlemen who plied a murderous trade in fresh corpses for medical research in Edinburgh in the 1820’s.

Pitched somewhere between historical drama and full-blown gothic horror, The Flesh and the Fiends is a sometimes uncomfortable but always compelling tale of murder and misguided obsession.

With corpses in short supply for medical research, it was not uncommon for doctors in the 19th century to turn to other means of obtaining the raw material for their experiments, which led to the rise of the so-called Resurrection Men – or, more plainly, grave robbers. In this case the doctor in question is Robert Knox (Peter Cushing) who, in his drive to advance the boundaries of medical knowledge, is prepared to turn a blind eye - almost literally - to the exploits of William Burke and William Hare (George Rose and Donald Pleasance) as long as they continue to provide his with fresh subjects for his dissecting table.

Burke and Hare, for those who are unfamiliar with them, were not simply Resurrection Men. Two rather feckless Irish immigrants to Scotland they much preferred to avoid digging up any actual corpses and instead murdered some 16 men and women whose bodies they then sold to the duplicitous Knox. Their murderous spree was finally halted in 1828 and William Burke was hanged for their crimes after his erstwhile colleague Hare turned King’s evidence.

Without taking too many liberties with the facts, and weaving a dark cinematic spell that can stand proudly alongside the gothic nightmares of Terence Fisher or Mario Bava, John Gilling’s film tells the story of Burke, Hare and Knox in a lean hour and a half peppered with some startling imagery, occasional moments of blacker-than-black comedy and outstanding performances from the lead and supporting actors.

As cool and icy here as in his outings as Victor Frankenstein – in fact, he often likened the obsessed Knox to the equally obsessed Baron – Peter Cushing gives a performance that is, by turns, menacing, detached and, ultimately, sympathetic. His Dr Knox is a man driven to extremes both by circumstance and personal obsession. In contrast both George Rose and Donald Pleasance exude a down-at-heel vileness that practically leaps from the screen. Pleasance is particularly chilling, especially in such moments as the murder of Daft Jamie (played by a youthful Melvyn Hayes) or the attempted rape and then murder of prostitute Mary (Billie Whitelaw), an act which ultimately leads to the downfall of their murderous money-making scheme.

As a sinister double act Rose and Pleasance have rarely been bettered and the black humour which both they and Gilling wring from Burke and Hare is one of life’s great guilty pleasures.

But the real star of The Flesh and the Fiends is director John Gilling himself. Delivering a multi-layered script with great aplomb and staging the often brutal scenes of violence with an unflinching sense of realism (the camera rarely turns away even at the most repellent of moments) Gilling’s direction lifts what might have otherwise been a run-of-the-mill exploitation movie into a genuine piece of cinematic art.

Shot in stark black and white with an atmospheric score by Stanley Black, The Flesh and the Fiends is one of a handful of wonderfully realized horror films that Gilling would direct. The others, including Hammer’s The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies (arguably one of the most influential horrors of all time since it provided the inspiration for Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead) showed the same sense of pace and style as his Burke and Hare movie, but with The Flesh and the Fiends Gilling crafted a genuine classic.

Although it has slipped off the critical radar somewhat – and was never all that successful even on its release – time has not dulled the edge of this fine example of what horror cinema can achieve when it is done with intelligence and style.

Worth checking out if – like so many of us – you have become tired of cookie-cutter horror or simply have a love of old exploitation movies.


  1. Mr. Lecky: I have been on the edge of buying this for some time (although why "on the edge" I can't say, since Peter Cushing is one of my favorite actors); but your post has given me the boost to buy it.

    I think the final nudge was the part of your post where you write about Cushing himself comparing his role here to his famous Baron.

    And, of coure, for pure-D-creepy, you have to go a far way out into the dark to beat Donald Pleasance. I do not know the work of this director, but judging by your post (and the company Mr. Gilling keeps) I bet I become a fan.

    Great post. -- Mykal

  2. Great movie. I haven't seen it in years, but I remember loving it and there are images that still linger now... Plus, admittedly, I did rather fancy Billie Whitelaw in that film...

  3. Great film - incredibly realistic corpses for 1959! (Love it when Cushing talks about them falling to pieces in the brine!) Have you seen The Greed of William Hart? It's an earlier go through the same story, written by Gilling, with the astounding Tod Slaughter.