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20th Century Fox presents
"This one's fresh, sir. Too fresh."
DVD ReviewThe tale of grave robbers Burke and Hare, turned murderers to supply bodies for medical experiements, has inspired numerous writers, including Robert Louis Stevenson. One of the more surprising forays into the literature of the "resurrection trade" is this roman a clef on the diabolical twosome by none other than poet Dylan Thomas.
Dr. Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton) is an anatomist in early 19th-century England, frustrated by legal limitations that allow him to perform dissections only on the rare hanged man. Turning to grave robbers, Rock pays better for fresher bodies. Robert Fallon (Jonathan Pryce) and Timothy Broom (Stephen Rea) get wind of this easy money, and go into business supplying Dr. Rock with corpses. An annoyingly ill lodger provides Fallon with an inspiration to give the good doctor an even fresher body to ply his trade, and from there things degenerate quickly as Fallon and Broom become increasingly murderous and Rock finds himself in trouble both with the medical establishment and the law due to the dubious sources of his bodies.
The film's thematic material is a bitter conflict between religious dogmatism standing in the way of progress (a belief that the body must be whole for the Resurrection precluded dissection) and science forging ahead with moral blinders on. The parallels to the current stem cell controversies are obvious: lives could be saved with additional information but for religious scruples about whether cells constitute a living thing with a soul, while advocates like to pretend that there is no moral dimension to cloning and harvesting of such cells. In Thomas' hands, this controversy is surprisingly balanced, with the tension interacting with British class structure to create a fascinating social study.
It certainly helps that this picture gets a much more first-rate cast than your typical parade of horrors. Dalton nicely portrays medical arrogance, striped with a genuine desire to help his patients. Pryce is maniacally determined as the homicidal Fallon, moving quickly from alcoholic opportunism to murder for fun and profit. A subplot involves Julian Sands as Rock's assistant, Dr. Murray, who becomes enamored of street whore Jennie Bailey (a hardly-recognizable Twiggy), who in a somewhat contrived suspense finale runs afoul of Fallon and Broom. Patrick Stewart puts in an appearance as the hide-bound representative of 18th-century medicine, determined to ruin Rock in any way he can. The reliable Beryl Reid puts in a memorable performance as Mrs. Flynn, a particularly entertaining victim of Fallon and Broom.
One of the high points of this adaptation is the nice evocation of the utter filth of 1820s London. PETA types will definitely want to skip over an extended cockfighting sequence that's quite disturbing in its realism, and weak stomachs will blanch at the numerous decaying corpses. Dark, grim and squalid, it's a world that feels mired in the Dark Ages in more ways than one. Director Freddie Francis, veteran of many Hammer productions, pointedly avoids the Hammer glossiness, making this world feel intensely real. Even though it's really a medical drama sold as a horror film (cf. the Boris Karloff vehicle Corridors of Blood), this re-creation of a world in a boozy haze is exceedingly well done, and the brisk pacing keeps the film interesting at all times.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Fox offers both the original Cinemascope picture in anamorphic widescreen, and a contemptible pan & scan travesty on the flip side. The color is suffused with a candlelight gold, and the black levels are appropriately deep for a world lived entirely in the shadows. The film proper looks much better than the overly-grainy trailer, which is something of a mess. Watching the trailer before the film will definitely give an appreciation for how nice the transfer is. The only defect is some minor ringing visible on rare occasions; the source print is virtually flawless.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Although the film is billed as being presented in Dolby Surround on the English track, there is virtually zero surround activity. On the positive side, the front soundstage is quite broad and lifelike. Hiss is nominal and the overall impact is one of a very clean track.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Alligator People, The Fly (1958), Phantom of the Paradise
Extras Review: Chaptering is adequate. The film is supplemented by an anamorphic widescreen trailer for the film, as well as trailers for a couple films of science gone wrong and confusingly, Paul Williams' rock adaptation of Phantom of the Opera. The disc loses points for opening with an unskippable, obnoxious and exceedingly loud accusation of the DVD purchaser of theft by downloading, an equally confusing association. Nothing like alienating your customers, Fox.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsIt's surprising to see such a cast in a medical horror, but the pedigree is certainly flawless, and the film doesn't disappoint.
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