The Subject was Lilies


One of the most monstrous true-life horror stories in history, the saga of Burke and Hare, comes to cinema via the excellent 1960 British pic THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, now available in its uncut glory, thanks to the villainous folks at Kino-Lorber, conspiring with Smart Egg Pictures.

Of the many screen accounts of this tale, FLESH is the best, and, in the complete 95-minute version, the most elusive (until now).  It began in 1828, in Edinburgh.  Dr. Knox, an eminent surgeon and teacher, is always on the lookout for fresh corpses to dissect for his classes and his experiments.  Not surprisingly, in the poorer regions of Scotland, the largest cottage industry is body snatching (the payments from Knox are quite fair, depending upon the condition of the subject).  Burke and Hare, two loathsome layabouts, can’t seem to get ahead of the competition – until fate deals them an icy cold hand.  Burke’s hag wife runs their shabby boarding house; it barely pays the bills.  Pissed that her latest tenant has died on the premises, she is, at first, put off by the ambitious Hare, who suggests that rather inform the authorities, they sell the cadaver to Knox.

It all turns out so well that Mrs. Burke hopes more tenants will succumb during their stay.  Hubby and Hare sweeten the pot by helping the process along.  They cut out the middle man, so to speak, and begin to murder loners, drifters and various slum transients.

As one might surmise, THE FLESH AND FIENDS is not exactly a subtle, light-hearted romp.  It’s a grisly, gritty incision into the macabre, courtesy of director John Gilling, who also cowrote the script (with Leon Griffiths).  Taking no prisoners, the movie additionally presents a Grand Guignol celebration of 19th century lust, greed, sadism, and obsession.  Certainly influenced by Hammer, this modest indy was one of the handful nicely produced pics spearheaded by Robert Baker and Monty Berman.  The caveat, being the tiny budget, meant no color (a check that helped put Hammer on the map); that said, there was no scrimping when it came to the cast.  Peter Cushing plays Knox, giving his usual expert performance, balanced between dedicated medical practitioner and proctor, and ruthless scientist.  The disgusting Burke and Hare are brilliantly enacted by Donald Pleasence and George Rose, with Renee Houston divinely revolting as Hare’s wife.  Excellent support is supplied by Dermot Walsh, June Laverick, John Cairney, June Powell, Melvyn Hayes, Andrew Faulds, Philip Leaver, George Woodbridge, Michael Balfour, Steven Berkoff, and Ian Fleming (not the Bond writer); most prominent is an early appearance by Billie Whitelaw, concurrently poignant and brash as a callous whore, who becomes the love interest of one of Knox’s students…and a victim of Burke and Hare’s machinations (FUN FACT: in a grotesque example of karma payback, Burke’s hanged corpse was itself dissected as a specimen; his skeleton is still displayed in the anatomical division of the Museum of Edinburgh Medical School).

The uncut version of the movie was known as the Euro-edition; this was filmed alongside the general release, and contained not really that much more gore (just longer languishing on it), but mostly sex sequences featuring topless tarts cavorting with their johns in pubs and houses of ill-repute (lots of grubby faces rubbed in bare chested cleavage, amongst female cackling and cries of “’Aving fun, dearie?”  You get the picture).

Sadly, like most Berman-Baker productions, FLESH AND THE FIENDS suffers from the deterioration of the original elements.  Along with the team’s 1959 Jack the Ripper, FLESH is the victim of worn and ragtag visuals and opticals.  It’s a sad testament to Baker, who also served as cinematographer on these pics.  One would hope for restorations, but do these 35MM materials even exist?  FLESH, while thankfully in its correct 2.35:1 DylaScope aspect ratio, looks like an acceptable 16MM print.  This is particularly distressing for fans of Gilling (whose Hammer output exists in stunning condition, and includes such favorites as Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile, and Pirates of Blood River), as this is arguably his finest work.

Knowledge of the above information should prepare you for the Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray.  To reiterate, it’s not awful by any means, merely disappointing.  The mono track, too, has issues, being a bit noisy and on the low side (another blow, as it diminishes Stanley Black’s score).

Extras on this nevertheless must-have item include the cut 74-minute American/TV version (entitled The Fiendish Ghouls for theaters and Mania for the telly), audio commentary by Tim Lucas, and related trailers. Ghouls, it should be noted, looks and sounds markedly better than FLESH; curiously, not only has the title and running time changed, but also the widescreen process, listed in the credits as Vitascope.

Again, don’t be put off by FLESH’s tattered remains; to date, this is the best available on this title.  Until better elements magically surface, this FatF is definitely library shelf-worthy.

THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS. Black and white. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Smart Egg Pictures.  CAT # K24546.  SRP: $29.95.

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