Friday, May 22, 2015

Burke and Hare-athon Part IV: The Flesh And The Fiends

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)
Dir. John Gilling
Written by John Gilling, Leon Griffiths
Starring Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, George Rose

We’re making progress here. THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS is the first Burke and Hare movie to look and feel like an actual movie, not an indifferently staged and awkwardly truncated stage play. It begins with a succinct and perfect little bit of pure cinema: in the galling quiet of the night, two miscreants wordlessly stride into a graveyard. Their dread purpose is made clear by the instruments they bring with them: kart, chains and shovels. The camera furtively follows them as they choose a grave and begin digging, the second shovel of dirt flying directly into the camera (too bad this wasn’t 3-D!), SMASH CUT TO TITLE.

The ANATOMIST also began with an image of graverobbers, but there’s something distinctly cinematic about this version, a realization --for the first time in two decades of films on this subject-- that along with impassioned soliloquies on the subject of science, there’s probably an advantage to pursuing some visual possibilities as well. How the fuck it took them so long to realize that, I cannot say, but there you have it. It’s understandable that this is an improvement, though, since it’s co-writer/director John Gilling’s second pass on the subject. He also wrote (but did not direct) the 1948 THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART, and here he is again, adapting the same source material, but more than ten years later, in a very different era of filmmaking.

It had not been so very long since the 1956 U.K. premier of THE ANATOMIST, but in British horror cinema, everything had changed. Just a year after the British public had gotten Alastair Sim pontificating endlessly about science in peoples’ living rooms, Hammer Studios released THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which pushed the boundaries of what the strict British censors would allow and became a mammoth, runaway hit that established Hammer as the premier horror studio in the world and launched what would become a run of 20+ years and dozens of horror movies. Three years later, Gilling was working for early Hammer imitator Triad Productions (he would graduate to Hammer itself the next year and go on to a venerable career with the studio including THE REPTILE, PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, and SHADOW OF THE CAT), and setting himself the task of re-creating his earlier adaptation in an era more welcoming of atmospheric, grisly tales of murder. In a possible “fuck you” to the censors of the 40’s who had banned him from using the actual names of the killers, the first image of the film is a title card emphatically asserting: “[this] is a story of vice and murder. We make no apologies to the dead. It is all true.”

One of the biggest changes from THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART is immediately evident: After the wordless graverobbing introduction, the action shifts immediately to a lecture by Dr. Knox. Knox is barely present in the earlier film, appearing only in a single scene near the middle and coming off as a cold, amoral villain absolutely complicit in the coverup of murder. Here, though, he gets a rousing introduction where he inspires dozens of young pupils to a standing ovation with the power of his words (he quotes Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man: “know then, thyself, presume not God to scan / the proper study of mankind is man” and urges them to see death as not just an enemy, but also as one more means by which to learn. That seems a little morbid for what appears to be a graduation ceremony, but hey, I guess he knows his crowd because they eat it up). Next thing we know, he’s also kind-heartedly helping out well-meaning but ne’er-do-well pupil Jackson (John Cairney, Hylas in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS) by offering him a job. Quite a far cry from Arnold Bell’s icy schemer in WILLIAM HART and Alastair Sim’s grandstanding bully in THE ANATOMIST. But there are hints of problems on the horizon: he gently berates the young student for being “too emotional” over medicine, and assures him he’ll be ready to graduate only once he can think of a patient “in the abstract.” Man, if I ever say anything that obviously foreshadowing of my own downfall, go ahead and let me know, huh?

Knox is played by Peter Cushing, of course, in what is for my money is one of his best and most unfairly ignored performances. Having already portrayed the amoral, obsessed scientist Victor Frankenstein twice (in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and a year later its sequel, REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN) Cushing was obvious typecasting for the role of Knox, but as always the actor proves willing to go the extra mile, crafting a subtly different character here from many of the same parts. His Knox is arrogant, but not in the blustery, bullying way Sim’s Knox was. Oh, he can be just as witheringly caustic, as we see in a magnificent scene where he efficiently administers an eloquent but remorseless verbal thrashing to a gaggle of obsequious rich guys at a party. But he also has a softer side, as we see in his kindly relationship with his niece (June Laverick) and his tough-love coaching of Jackson. And unlike Sim, whose boundless contempt seemed to be a function of egomania as much as genuine conviction, Cushing’s Knox seems both sincere and fundamentally altruistic. His frustration with the backwards attitude of the establishment is perfectly reasonable; if he has no choice but to be complicit in bodysnatching in order to save lives, he’s willing to do it. This will be his downfall, obviously, but for the first time here his attitude seems somewhat more understandable. Cushing’s subtle but noticeable inclusion of the detail of Knox’s drooping left eye --ruined by smallpox during his youth-- is a nice visual illustration of his moral myopia; he sees the big picture more clearly than almost anyone, but at the expense of the personal, the immediate. These nuances make this Dr. Knox by far the most complex and interesting version of the character anywhere in the annals of the Burke and Hare-athon.

The movie begins with Knox, but unlike THE ANATOMIST, it’s not exclusively focused on him. Soon enough, we’re introduced to our Burke and Hare, in this case played by George Rose (PIRATES OF PENZANCE, but today best know for his own real-life murder mystery) and Donald Pleasance (RAW MEAT, every single movie released between 1956 and 1990) respectively. And just as with Dr. Knox, it’s immediately obvious that this is a very different Burke and Hare then we've encountered in previous incarnations. First off, they’re introduced as loutish drunks before they’ve ever entered the corpse procurement profession. It’s the first movie to depict their first sale to the medical establishment --a tenant of the Hare’s boarding house who had died of natural causes (the movie makes Burke the proprietor instead of Hare, for whatever reason)-- to some extent offering some explanation of their long slide into serial murder. We also spend significantly more time with them than any prior version, taking in their homelife, discovering what they’re doing with the money (squandering it on ostentatious clothes and gallons of whiskey) and even meeting a significant other; Mrs. Burke (Renee Houston, REPULSON) appears as an accomplish to our murderous duo here, though Mrs. Hare is curiously absent. The result of these new details are a pair of miscreants initially less one-dimensionally murderous than their previous incarnations; they’re vain, petty louts who turn to murder for money, but they’re also pathetic in a way which Slaughter/Moore and Ripper/Kelly were not. Murder isn’t exactly their natural inclination, but they’re heartless enough that when it turns out to be a lucrative profession, they eagerly embrace it.

Rose plays Burke as more or less an idiot, a violent brute with no qualms about murder if there’s a payday in it. That in itself isn’t especially different from the previous versions of the character (though historically Burke was thought to be the more intelligent of the two), but Pleasance makes Hare a little bit more interesting. He’s wittier, more calculating; what Burke does remorselessly without much thought, Hare guilds with self-serving rationalizations, egging his accomplice on. Burke begins the actual killing, but Pleasance’s reaction is the more intriguing: he covers his mouth with his hands in shock, but his wide eyes seem to suggest excitement more than than horror. It’s never explicitly stated, but his new career path seems to wake something in him even more disturbing than murder for money. Of all the incarnations of the two killers, Pleasance’s silver-tongued sadist is probably the most unsettling and memorable.

Besides Knox, Burke and Hare, we also follow the relationship between Knox’s niece and his dishwater-dull HGMS assistant Dr. Mitchell (Dermot Walsh, 1960’s THE CHALLENGE), and the burgeoning relationship between our ne’er-do-well HGMS assistant Jackson and a bawdy local prostitute named… Mary Paterson (Billie Whitelaw, FRENZY, THE OMEN, THE DARK CRYSTAL). This is the first film adaptation that gets some mileage out of the idea that Paterson is recognized by a student after her death, and likewise the first to imagine a romantic relationship between them. Obviously, the sex-and-violence angle is catnip for film writers, and so it’s little wonder that once Gilling had put it out in the world, it would find its way into virtually every subsequent version. It’s a good idea on paper, a way to link the victims of Burke and Hare’s crimes to the medical school where our heroes will eventually unravel the mystery of where these bodies are coming from (never mind that in real life, the murders were detected by a poor family staying at the Hares’ boarding house). 

On paper that sounds good. In practice, though, this structure would become the achilles heel of the entire enterprise of making Burke and Hare adaptations. Let’s count our characters now: Knox, Burke, Hare, Mrs. Burke, HGMS #1, Knox’s Niece, HGMS #2, Mary Paterson, and also I should mention we again get to spend some time with Daft Jamie (Melvyn Hayes, who had played young Victor Frankenstein in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN a few years prior). What is this, a prequel to NASHVILLE? The essential problem with this and almost every subsequent variation of this story is that there are just too god damn many characters, and most of them have absolutely nothing to do until near the very end. It seems like a good idea to involve our obligatory HGMS’s with the victims in order to give them a more personal stake in the mystery, but any benefit gained from this plot contrivance is more than offset by the tedium of having to deal with their pointless lives and relationships which do not in any meaningful way intersect with the actual story of Burke and Hare until the very end of the movie.

This leaves the whole enterprise feeling weirdly rudderless. Who, exactly, is the main character here? Nobody! Not a single person in this script would qualify as a character who encounters conflict and is ultimately changed by his or her experience. They’re all almost completely passive until the final reveal, and the only person who is active in the climax (the HGMS who ultimately discovers Burke and Hare’s secret) is the one with the least involvement in any other part of the plot. GREED OF WILLIAM HART and THE ANATOMIST are inferior films in almost every way, but they at least had their own clear sense of who the protagonist was, and how the basic story mechanics served that protagonist. THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS really struggles on this front. Burke and Hare themselves probably have the most screen time, but they don’t really have anything resembling an arc. One of the HGMS’s solves the mystery, but is basically a nonentity otherwise. And the person the film begins and ends with --Dr. Knox-- is only peripherally involved in any of the actual drama.

Oddly, this film, like THE ANATOMIST, ends with an inexplicably sympathetic scene of support for Dr. Knox. Cushing’s Knox is admittedly a little more likeable than Sim’s was, but even he admits, at the end, that he knew Burke and Hare were murderers. He does a little more soul-searching than his predecessors, but jeez, does it really count as character growth just that he feels a little bad about it and then everyone forgives him? I mean, I kind of appreciate that the film doesn’t go the usual horror movie route and condemn the scientists for meddling in God’s domain or whatever, but does this guy really deserve a happy ending (especially an ahistorical one)? Cushing’s performance is nuanced enough to make it kind of work; though his rhetoric remains robust, you can see the fight drain out of him, see his eyes grow suddenly tired. There’s a moment when a chance remark by a child makes him realize just how infamous he is, and he suddenly actually seems to really get it for the first time. The look of quiet devastation on his face is a truly gut-wrenching thing to behold, maybe one of Cushing’s very strongest scenes in his entire venerable career. But I don’t know. The whole point of telling this story is to remind us that it’s wrong to abet murder, even if it’s in the service of the greater good? No shit. At the very least, the majority of the story has nothing to do with that point, so it seems an odd note to end on.

The iffy narrative structure is a major flaw, but at least the movie has plenty of strengths to balance it. Pretty much every scene with Burke and Hare is gold, Cushing is terrific as Knox, and the script is peppered with darkly hilarious wit, most of it delivered by Cushing or Pleasance in the drollest possible manner.* Moreover, aside from being by far the most cinematic adaptation of this material so far, it is also the first unambiguous horror film; the murder scenes are sumptuously layered with eerie hard lighting that makes them feel exaggerated and nightmarish, and the gothic, expressionist sets heighten that sense. Even beyond that, though, this is a surprisingly gritty experience. For 1960, there’s quite a bit of sex, gore, and grotesquery on display. While there’s some broad hints that Paterson is a prostitute in THE ANATOMIST, here there’s no doubt. She lives in some kind of bawdy house where the downstairs living room has been retrofitted into some kind of weird orgy pad. As our heroes walk by we can see all manner of sexual chicanery happening within, including, humorously, a bare-ass naked lady just sort of ambling around in circles with no clear objective. The pub where Burke and Hare find their victims is equally raucous and lewd, topless women drunkenly pawing at their would-be paramours and sloppy fights breaking out at random. Producers Robert Baker and Monty Berman were known for inserting sometimes incongruous nudity into their productions, but here it works well to establish the debased world these characters inhabit. Likewise, the surprising (for 1960) gore adds some much-needed spice. We see a long-decayed body pulled from the ground, watch two brutal (though bloodless) murders, an ugly attempted rape (which thankfully the movie does not try to play as sexy), and even watch Hare get his eyes burned out (presumably a reference to the folk legend that he was blinded by a mob following his release). This ain’t your grandpappy’s Burke and Hare; these guys inhabit a world of drunken, desperate poverty and hopeless, disease-ridden mindless sex. I mean, it ain’t exactly CALIGULA or nothin’ but it’s a far cry from the chatty, sanitized visions of this story we got in 1948 and 1956.

THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS contains a whole slew of “firsts,” and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that it would dominate the way the story was told for the rest of the century. It’s the first movie to suggest a relationship between a HGMS and Peterson, the first to clutter up the story with way too many characters, the first to include a significant emphasis on sexuality, gore, and drunken debauchery, the first to actually show Burke and Hare’s fate, and the first to fall clearly into the horror genre. Every one of these factors would strongly influence both the structure and the feel of the next few versions, which is strange, because the movie itself was a box-office disappointment and seldom available for decades. I guess this movie is like the Velvet Underground; not too many people saw it, but everyone who did went off and made their own Burke and Hare movie. But anyway, they couldn’t have picked a better one to try and rip off, because between the fine cinematography, terrific performances and blackly funny script, this one’s a real winner. Only the shapeless structure holds it back from being a real genre classic, but that’s forgivable in light of the things it gets right. I don’t want to say it was worth 16 people getting murdered to get a horror movie this good… but you know, not a bad silver lining, anyway.

*On the subject of Parliament’s reticence to help medical schools gain easier access to cadavers, Knox quips, “with five hundred walking corpses there, you would think they could spare one.”


2010: Burke and Hare

Burke and Hare-athon Checklist!

  • Title: The Flesh And The Fiends
  • Genre: Horror/Dark Comedy
  • Story regulars: Burke, Hare, Knox, Paterson, Daft Jamie, Mrs. Burke, HGMS. No Mrs. Docherty in this case, and our usual HGMS is actually TWO HGMS’s this time around.
  • Attitude towards Dr. Knox: Ambiguous, but ultimately positive.
  • Wonky eye or no? Hell yeah, the best ever.
  • Scottish accents? Only Billie Whitelaw as Mary Paterson attempts a Scottish Brogue, but she's pretty crazy. I didn't mention that to save space in the review, but boy, does she make dating an alcoholic prostitute not look very appealing despite the cleavage.
  • Irish accents? Both Rose and Pleasance oblige with an Irish accent, though neither goes over the top with it.
  • Heaving cleavage? Yes sir.
  • Rockin’ theme music? No, although a nice scary score.

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