A Movie A Day: THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS (1960) To be condemned by ignorance is a compliment to knowledge!
Published at: Oct. 26, 2009, 4:04 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the newest October special horror run of A Movie A Day!
[For the entirety of October I will be showcasing one horror film each day. Every film is pulled from my DVD shelf, recorded on the home DVR or streamed via Instant Netflix and will be one I haven’t seen. Unlike my usual A Movie A Day or A Movie A Week columns there won’t necessarily be connectors between each film, but you’ll more than likely see patterns emerge day to day. At the end of each standard AMAD I’m going to include a recommendation of a genre film that is either one of my personal favorites or too good of a double feature with the AMAD title to pass up a mention.]
It’s odd to see what patterns emerge when watching a randomly drawn batch of films. THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS (aka Mania) is the second film of this month-long run of Halloween-themed AMADs to be based on the Burke and Hare murders in 19th Century Scotland, the first being the Val Lewton produced Boris Karloff vehicle called THE BODY SNATCHER (read my review here).
And oddly enough John Landis is prepping a film about these guys called (originally enough) BURKE & HARE and he has Simon Pegg and Dr. Who’s David Tennant attached to play the pair.
Thankfully the Robert Louis Stevenson’s story that became the inspiration for Val Lewton’s movie is different enough not to make it feel like I just watched Capote and Infamous back to back. In the Lewton film there is only one body snatcher murdering people for the money he gets from a local doctor using the fresh cadavers for scientific study and in THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS it is indeed Burke & Hare.
Hare is played by Donald Pleasence, which brough an immediate smile to my face. I love Pleasence and I especially loved his performance in this movie. He and George Rose, who plays Burke, play the two like Honest John and Gideon from Pinocchio, even down to the tattered high society outfit and goofy top hats.
The Body Snatcher made a big deal out of the relationship between the resurrectionist (another term for body snatcher) and the good doctor, entwining the two so that the doctor is ultimately driven mad by his nemesis.
However in this film the writers and director are clearly on Dr. Knox’s side. The great Peter Cushing plays the doctor as a bit cold, but honest and the furthest thing from evil. In fact, he’s using these bodies to save humanity, teaching more and more future doctors to eradicate the evils of ignorant, superstitious doctors that are killing their patients with their stupidity.
Even if the movie hadn’t ended the way it did you could tell just in the writing that they favored Dr. Knox. Cushing doesn’t play him as creepy and he isn’t written that way. In fact, he has at least three different scenes where he dresses down his colleagues with an extremely quick wit and sharp tongue.
The real monsters here are Burke & Hare… and even Burke is just kind of a dumbass. It’s Hare that is the brains behind the operation and just slimy enough to get off on it.
That’s the A storyline. The B storyline focuses on a student of Cushing’s played by John Cairney who falls in love with a swinging barmaid played by the lovely Billie Whitelaw who you might remember as the “hag” from HOT FUZZ. She don’t look nothin’ like she does in Hot Fuzz here, boyo.
It’s a doomed relationship even if they weren’t falling in love during a horror movie, but in a small amount of screen time we fully understand Whitelaw’s love for Cairney, but her inability to change who she is. She’s being pulled in two different directions and hating herself for it. It’s a tricky character and she somehow makes Mary Patterson likable despite acting like a raging bitch for the majority of her screen time.
There’s also another love story going on between Knox’s niece (June Laverick) and his right hand man (Dermot Walsh), but that’s not really developed, which is good. The real reason this movie works is because of Pleasence, Rose and Cushing.
I loved director John Gilling’s use of anamorphic widescreen black and white in this picture. It’s gorgeous. Cinematographer Monty Berman (who also produced this picture, oddly enough) deserves a lot of credit for creating a great atmosphere. You can almost feel the chill of the mist and smell the rankness of the cadavers.
Gilling’s script and direction are to be commended as well. Gilling directed a flick I watched as part of my AMAD run, a great Hammer pirate movie starring Christopher Lee called THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to see he knocked this one out of the park, too.
Final Thoughts: This flick really worked for me. Now, there are two cuts on the DVD, a “UK Cut” and a “Continental Cut.” I watched the UK cut and let me tell you… watch the Continental Cut. It’s the same movie, but with a minute’s worth of nudity and violence shot and edited in for the less strict out-of-England territories. The nudity isn’t sexual, but damn if there aren’t some gorgeous women just sitting around with their tops off every once in a while. You’re welcome.
I had this article finished a good 6 hours ago… I had to run off to a screening of THE FOURTH KIND (mini-review… some great scenes, but the leaps of logic are too great for me to love the overall ultra-gimmicky film) and then when I got back I just couldn’t come up with a like movie. I covered Frankenstein with THE BODY SNATCHER, which, in and of itself is a great double bill… But all the other body snatching type movies that came to mind just didn’t feel right.
So instead I’m branching off of one of the aspects of this film I loved so much… Mr. Donald Pleasence.
In my professional opinion, PRINCE OF DARKNESS is one of the most underrated John Carpenter movies of his career. Last time I did a Halloween AMAD run I featured another movie (as a recommendation) of his that is also underrated (IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS). I love me some Carpenter, especially ‘80s Carpenter, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Prince of Darkness is thought less of than Madness, but it is certainly one of his overlooked films.
I will say, unequivocally, that Prince of Darkness is John Carpenter’s scariest movie. It may not be his best movie, but I have no qualms in labeling it his scariest.
And I think it has to do with tone. I mean, you can pick apart a lot of the film… from the casting of middle-aged people playing college students to the bizarre pacing to the multiple technobabble conversations… but the tone is pitch perfect and gets under my skin the second I start watching it. And once the shit goes down in that creepy as shit church he has me.
To be fair, I have a thing with mirrors in horror movies. I don’t know where that particular weakness comes from, but anything to do with mirrors being used at gateways between worlds or reflections really gets me, the same way possession gets some people more than any other kind of horror.
There’s some fucked imagery in this movie, especially involving mirrors.
What you essentially have with this movie is a secretive sect of Christianity that is tasked with guarding something. The movie opens with an ancient priest dying and his task moving to a new priest (Pleasence).
He asks an old friend, Egg Shen himself Mr. Victor Wong, a teacher and scientist a local college to research something in his care… namely a big vat of green goop in the cellar of a dilapidated church. Wong asks his group of the oldest graduate students ever to help.
Turns out the shit in that church is not only pure evil, but the physical manifestations of the antichrist (chaos reigns!) who awakens during the study and begins possessing the students as it grows strong enough to bring its father into our world.
There’s enough sub-atomic theory in this movie to choke a dog and the two lead grad kids (Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount) are very stiff, but despite that Carpenter still creats an atmosphere of doom that is palpable. This movie is filled with hopelessness. You doubt for any kind of happy ending.
In this movie you get a pissed off Satan worshipping bum army led by Alice Cooper, gravity defying antichrist goop, the best Freddy Krueger rip-off make-up ever, a special piece of Rob Bottin make-up borrowed from another film, an incredible ‘80stache on Jameson Parker, a dude who turns into bugs and video transmission nightmares from the future that guarantees no happy ending.
And sounds… the bug guy when he talks really makes me shiver. Also the giggling of one particular possessed grad student is horrifying. And those transmissions are more terrifying than any video-camera horror including Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity. And that final shot is perfect.
Tone and atmosphere… that’s where this movie succeeds more than any other Carpenter film. I could name 5 I think are better (Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Thing, The Fog and Escape From New York come to mind immediately), but none of those movies get under my skin the way that Prince of Darkness does.
Here are the next week’s worth of AMAD titles:
Monday, October 26th: COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970)
Tuesday, October 27th: THE SADIST (1963)
Wednesday, October 28th: CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)
Thursday, October 29th: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE? (1969)
Friday, October 30th: WHO SAW HER DIE? (1972)
Saturday, October 31st: CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)
We’re well on our way to wrapping up this run of AMAD. Halloween’s only 6 movies away!
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