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Monday 16 January 2012

The Flesh and the Fiends - an under-rated classic

Cover of "The Flesh and the Fiends"
Cover of The Flesh and the Fiends
So, yet another friend of mine said they hadn't heard of this picture, 1. Like me, he thought Donald Pleasence was a very under-rated actor. However, he had not seen this, perhaps one of his greatest performances. Unfortunately the film, much like Pleasence, has been dismissed into the sub-genre it was marketed under. My feelings on marketing art are a sensitive issue with me at the moment, but I will address that another day. Anyway, this film is a classic example of a product that is far more than its lowest common denominator promotion would lead you to believe...

 "The Flesh and the Fiends" was the second British feature film to tackle the real life horror story of 19th century murderers, William Burke and William Hare. These Edinburgh multiple killers were responsible for murdering 16 confirmed victims, which they then sold to Dr Robert Knox for his anatomy lectures. How much Knox suspected that the gruesome twosome's "products" were murder victims is a matter for speculation and it has helped turn the story into a Faustian fable. This is largely down to movies such as this. In fact, this is perhaps the one that really put the idea across. 1948's ultra low budget "The Greed of William Hart" did not present a very sympathetic Dr Knox at all. Peter Cushing who could play both an evil and a good Dr Frankenstein for the Hammer films, was the perfect person to take on the role.

The Flesh and the Fiends introduces several other elements for future Burke and Hare films (namely the Horrors of Burke and Hare and the Doctor and the Devils). There is a clear contrast made between the poor and the upper classes, mainly highlighed by Billie Whitelaw's brilliant portrayal of real prostitute murder victim, Mary Patterson. Patterson was one of most famous victims. She was recognized by many of Knox's students who had been acquainted with her previously. The Flesh and the Fiends introduces the concept of a romantic sub-plot involving her and one of Knox's students. This would be seen again in both The Horrors of Burke and Hare (1972) and The Doctor and the Devils (1985).

Donald Pleasance plays a particularly creepy William Hare, caricaturing the personification of evil that general public saw when the real man got off being hung for his part in the muders by testifying against his accomplice, William Burke.

The Flesh and the Fiends marks a high point for black and white horror at the turn of a new decade, not long before gore and cheap shocks would start to saturate the genre. In contrast to many "fright fests" the film is played completley straight and works as much as a thought provoking drama as the genuinely eerie chiller it most undoubtedly is.

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