(1959 Horror)

FLESH AND THE FIENDS US poster artwork (under the title MANIA)

George Rose and myself were perfectly horrible grave robbers. As I recall, that film had some rather
bloody scenes in it which, in 1960, was a rare occurrence in horror films. That was a really
atmospheric film, and it portrayed the poverty of 19th-century Europe realistically.

---Donald Pleasence

STARRING: Peter Cushing (Dr. Robert Knox), Donald Pleasence (William Hare), June Laverick (Martha), George Rose (William Burke), Dermot Walsh (Dr. Geoffrey Mitchell), Renee Houston (Helen Burke), Billie Whitelaw (Mary Patterson), John Calmey (Chris Jackson), Melvyn Hayes (Daft Jamie), and June Powell (Maggie O'Hara)

DIRECTOR: John Gilling
SCREENPLAY: John Gilling and Leon Griffiths (based on a story by John Gilling)
PRODUCER: Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman

United Kingdom

97 minutes

Black and White

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A crazed Donald Pleasence attacks Billie Whitelaw

A review by Benjamin Halligan

Pleasence, Peter Cushing, and George RoseMania (also known as The Flesh and the Fiends, The Psycho Killers, The Fiendish Ghouls, directed by John Gilling, 1959) is a surprisingly graphic film for its time. The film focusses on the vicious circle of violence perpetrated by grave-robbers Burke and Hare in nineteenth century Scotland. The film shows something of the influence of the French Cinema de Papa, and particularly the films of Marcel Carne. Atmospheric city scenes---packed and rowdy bars, foggy streets and long shadows---give the film a particularly impressive look. The look for the film more recalls the use of expressionism associated with Murnau and Lang than anticipate the visceral and stately aesthetic of later British horror films.

It is fascinating to see distinctive performances from Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence. Cushing delivers a star turn; a stylised presentation of the elder professor, privy to dark knowledge, that would remain Cushing's persona in countless horror movies (right up to the truly awful Dracula AD 1972, almost a quarter of a century later). He moves with a seemingly professional coldness between the lecture theatre (where he espouses the Victorian scientific ideals) to his gruesome cellar (where he knowingly pays for freshly-murdered corpses). Pleasence delivers a scene-stealing character performance. Complete with Ulster accent and a mental state that seems to veer between comic disbelief and murderous instability, he manipulates those around him with the dexterity of Dickens's Fagin. Indeed, his fate is worse than the public hanging suffered by his partner in crime. Blinded by fire, he is left to wonder the dangerous streets, one of the living dead. Pleasence's presence brings vitality and immediacy to the predominantly stylised sets and performances of this film. Pleasence as William Hare I would imagine the predominance of his role came in the editing stage---once the film was in the can---when the director realised the appeal of Pleasence's screen persona.

Another winning contrast is between Cushing's civil home life and the class of students who attend his lectures, and the rowdy street and bar scenes outside. There is a sense of a society socially split, and one on the edge of turmoil. The Victorian belief in the unstoppable progress of science (at a party, Cushing demands of a colleague that he shows the part of the body that contains the soul) seems more than naïve against this backdrop.

Review courtesy of Benjamin Halligan

Review © 1999 Benjamin Halligan. All Rights Reserved.


Above photo courtesy of Tim Murphy

Photos © 1959 TRIAD / VALIANT--PACEMAKER. All Rights Reserved.

Poster artwork © 1961 BEN ADLER ADVERTISING SERVICE, INC. All Rights Reserved.

Title and logo designed by Karen Rappaport