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Image Entertainment presents
"Remember also, that Death is not only your enemy, it is your friend. Death is an incident producing clay. Use it. Mold it. Learn from it."
DVD ReviewIn hindsight, I can understand how the 1959 production of The Flesh And The Fiends ended up marketed under at least three different titles during it's life. This is rather a tough film to categorize, and I feel it was lumped somewhat mistakenly into the category of "British horror". With Hammer legend Peter Cushing as the marquee lead—though in almost a comparatively minor role—it seemed easily packaged as a typical fright flick. Yet The Flesh And The Fiends is less of a horror tale than it is an exploration of science and experimentation, with a bit of graverobbing and murder. Ironically, some of the issues raised in the film with regard to studying cadavers are not all that different from those of today's stem cell research.
Dr. Robert Knox (Peter Cushing) is a controversial surgeon in 1825 Edinburgh. His experiments in vivisection have put him under intense scrutiny from the medical community. In order to continue his work with cadavers, Knox has taken to purchasing recently deceased bodies from Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasance), a pair of vile Irish immigrants. Burke and Hare relentlessy plunder the local graveyards to bring the good doctor some new stiffs, in exchange for a few coins, and it's not long before the choice of decent corpses runs low. In true entrepreneurial spirit, the two graverobbers begin murdering local vagrants to keep Dr. Knox supplied with fresh bodies, and them with a steady supply of booze.
Director/writer John Gilling assembled a strong cast of veterans to give his film depth. Peter Cushing almost takes a backseat to Donald Pleasence; as the murderous weasel Hare, Pleasance is the brains to his thick-headed partner's brawn. A filthy, shifty rat, Hare is a memorable character, and Pleasence milks it nicely. As Burke, George Rose (looking a LOT like Lon Chaney), mumbles and drunkenly shuffles, menacingly. Billie Whitelaw, who went on to appear as the evil Mrs. Baylock in The Omen, here is the hard-drinking prostitute Mary. I liked the character of Mary, and found her combination of fierce independence and loneliness touching.
Of course, Cushing owns the film when he is onscreen. Regal and dignified, with a squinty left eye, he gives another in a long line of great performances. Cushing is probably one of the most recognizable faces in all of film horror, right up there with Lugosi and Karloff, and he simply needs to only cast a sideways glance, or deliver a raging soliloquy to prove his worth as a true star. While not one of his more memorable films, The Flesh And The Fiends certainly benefits from the sheer magnetism of Cushing. Although he has top billing, the middle portion of the film is concerned primarily with the violent Hare and Burke, with very little of Cushing.
The Flesh And The Fiends is very evocative visually, in mood and tone, to some of the great works of James Whale. With an eerie cinematic style reminiscent more of films from the 1940s than 1959, director John Gilling fills the screen with deep shadows and dimly light taverns. He smoothly juxtaposes the affluent lifestyles of Edinburgh's medical community with that of the dirt poor village residents. Gilling's Edinburgh is an intentionally dark and unpleasant locale, in an era when new science and old world values collided.
Unfortunately, the first half of Gilling's story moves agonizingly slow. The plot development seems to take forever to kick in, and Image has woefully included back cover liner notes that completely spoil the dramatic elements of the film's more exciting second half. Gilling redeems himself with a couple of particularly disturbing murder scenes, shot in the same type of unflinching framing that made later films like Henry:Portrait Of A Serial Killer uncomfortably memorable.
Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: C+
Image Transfer Review: The Flesh And The Fiends is presented in it's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, in an anamorphic widescreen transfer. The good news is that Image has lifted the print from a new transfer made directly from the film's camera negative. Yet, even with the updated transfer, the overall image is full of nicks and scratches. On the plus side, the black levels look terrific, with thick, enveloping shadows that look threatening and ominous. At times,this film looks like it was shot in 1939 rather than 1959. Thankfully, due to the film's subject matter and time period, this serves to enhance the overall tone.
Despite the best efforts, this is a less than first-class transfer from Image.
Image Transfer Grade: C
Audio Transfer Review: Image has retained the original mono audio mix for The Flesh And The Fiends. The flat audio enhances the moody cinematography significantly, though at times it is hard to understand some of the Scottish accents. There is very noticeable hiss and crackle throughout.
Audio Transfer Grade: C+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
A full-frame theatrical trailer for a 1965 U.S. re-release, a shortened version billed as The Fiendish Ghouls, is also included. The trailer is full of nicks and scratches, and looks positively ancient.
An alternate title sequence for another U.S. re-release of The Flesh And The Fiends, this time from 1961 when the film was renamed Mania. Interesting from a historical perspective only.
A Photo and Poster Gallery, consisting of 17 production stills and promotional posters, is typical of this type of extra. Again, of interest only from a historical point of view.
No subtitles at all. This would have been a nice plus, especially with the thick accents.
The real gem are the liner notes by Jonathan Sothcott. He provide a nice background on John Gilling and the various incarnations of the film over the years. Sothcott's informative history, combined with the U.K. and Continental versions, boost the quality of this disc's supplementals.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsThis is not a landmark example of British horror, by any means, but it does feature some great performances by Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence and George Rose. John Gilling's direction is visually engaging, yet suffers from a somewhat uneventful script.
Recommended for serious fans of Hammer-genre films only.
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