Monday, 30 October 2017
October Horrors #14:
The Flesh & The Fiends
(John Gilling, 1960)
“THIS IS THE STORY OF LOST MEN AND LOST SOULS. IT IS A STORY OF VICE AND MURDER. WE MAKE NO APOLOGIES TO THE DEAD. IT IS ALL TRUE.”
Thus reads the text super-imposed over the picturesque opening shot of 1960’s ‘The Flesh & The Fiends’, an exceptionally seedy grave-robbing melodrama that must surely rank as one of the most artistically accomplished films to have emerged from under the auspices of notoriously tight-fisted British producers (Robert S.) Baker & (Monty) Berman.
Now, before we get stuck into this one, I must confess that the whole Victorian grave-robber/Burke & Hare mythos has never really appealed to me very much. Of all the perennial horror subjects that have persevered through the history of cinema in fact, I’ve always thought that this was one of the least compelling.
In reality of course, the Edinburgh grave-robbing flap in which Burke & Hare played the most infamous part - largely an unfortunate side effect of the city’s medical college allowing impoverished students to pay for their studies in bodies (I mean, what did they THINK was going to happen?) – is fairly interesting, but, in terms of fiction, it doesn’t exactly strike me as a tale that deserves to resound through the ages.
I mean, a few shifty characters start selling bodies to doctors in order to get by - so what? In horror terms, it’s pretty banal stuff. I don’t have much time for real life-inspired serial killer films either, but at least those guys had a certain mystique about them, y’know what I mean?
The best way to approach this subject, I therefore feel, is to bypass the usual logic of a horror film and instead explore the wider milieu of the class inequality and social circumstances underpinning the grim tale… which thankfully is the approach that co-writer/director John Gilling here delivers in spades (no pun intended).
I’ll save you my whole cahiers du cinema bit, but, suffice to say, the deeper I dig into British commercial cinema of the ‘50s and ‘60s (and digging has been slow, but steady over the past decade or so), the more convinced I become that Gilling should be considered as one of the great, lost auteurs labouring in that particular field.
Though the journeyman nature of his career makes it difficult to draw a straight thematic line through all his work, I believe that Gilling’s films tend to be characterised by a strong feel for gutsy, working class directness (not exactly an uncommon trait amongst British directors of his era, admittedly), combined with a black-hearted sense of cynicism aimed at all levels of society – the latter being particularly tangible with regard to the awkward or threatening situations in which different social classes interact.
Such an approach made Gilling a natural for hard-boiled crime movies – indeed, he made numerous films in this vein, and the one I have seen to date (1963’s ‘Panic!’) is excellent – but it also led him into more troubled and uncertain waters when box office trends caused him to turn his attentions increasingly toward horror, science fiction and historical adventures during the ‘60s, lending his work in these genres a raw and morally ambiguous flavour that sometimes proved pretty difficult for audiences to digest.
Front and centre in this regard stands ‘The Flesh & The Fiends’, which, though it is not my personal favourite of his films (hey, dude directed Plague of the Zombies), could well be a contender for Gilling’s masterpiece, should the auteurists eventually come knocking.
From the outset, ‘The Flesh..’ draws a sharp distinction between the austere elegance of the private medical academy presided over by indefatigable anatomical research enthusiast Dr Knox (Peter Cushing), and the raging underworld of unruly taverns and brothels that surround it amid the winding, hilly streets of Edinburgh’s old town - environs from which Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasence) almost literally seem to ooze.
The uneasy flashpoints between these two worlds are highlighted by the characters in the film who come closest to being sympathetic, namely hapless medical student Chris Jackson (John Cairney) and brazen tavern hussy Mary (Billie Whitelaw), whose fumbling, sub-Pygmalion romance eventually leads them both to a miserable end at the hands of messrs B&H, inadvertently exposing the unsavoury conduct of Knox’s preferred corpse-suppliers in the process.
A bleak and furtive exercise in full spectrum cynicism, Gilling’s film venomously attacks the conduct of rich and poor alike, ensuring that even the film’s younger, more ostensibly ‘sympathetic’ characters (to whose ranks we can add a square-jawed ‘good’ medical student and his love interest, Knox’s niece) are variously portrayed as too naïve, vacuous, self-involved, snobbish or undisciplined to even fully understand the games their elders are playing around them, let alone assume any mantle of ‘heroism’.
As Dr Knox, Cushing offers a fascinating variation on the persona he perfected in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, his characterisation of an obsessive, technocratic scientist destroyed by his moral blind spots and lack of human empathy deepened by the more realistic setting offered here.
In a delightful touch, Knox literally turns a blind eye to the crimes of his insalubrious associates, his left eyelid drooping down over a sightless socket – a subtle imperfection that mars his otherwise primly symmetrical appearance, and a brilliant visual metaphor for the fatal character flaw that tips him over the fine line separating a celebrated philanthropic surgeon from a notorious, corpse-mangling monster.
At the other end of the social spectrum meanwhile, Donald Pleasence [in what I believe was his first significant genre role] cuts an equally memorable figure as Willy Hare, portrayed here as a wily tavern parasite and low level thief within whom the discovery of the easy money to be made via late night visits to Knox’s cellar awakens a latent psychopathic tendency, expressed by Pleasence through an increasingly unhinged palette of craven, somewhat effeminate mannerisms that blur the line between melodrama-appropriate scenery chewing and more distrubingly intense, method-ish performance tics.
Pleasance of course comprises one half of a double-act with the largely forgotten actor George Rose, whose idiot-grinning, easily led Burke lends the duo a kind of Satanic, inverted ‘Of Mice and Men’ vibe. After initially being presented as a pair of seedy rogues in the light-hearted Dickensian/Victorian tradition, B&H’s behaviour, and the interplay between them, becomes more uncertain, open-ended and upsetting as the film progresses. As their decision to take up a career as murderers causes the strictly defined parameters of their squalid urban working class existence to begin falling apart around them, their sense of ‘normality’ collapses along with it, causing their actions to become wilder and more unpredictable, with any understanding of cause and effect, let alone right and wrong, completely off the table.
By establishing these characters and their world so credibly, Gilling sets the scene for what is undoubtedly a very effective horror film as well as a social allegory, and the scenes between Burke & Hare and their unfortunate victims are probably the most effective in the picture.
Their first murder in particular is an astonishingly unsettling sequence – probably the most chilling thing I’ve encountered in this whole October review marathon. Certainly, few viewers will forgot the deranged ‘death dance’ that Pleasence performs as he goads his dim-witted companion into suffocating the life out of a derelict old woman, mockingly replicating the scene in real time as she expires before him.
After the deed is done, Hare recoils disgustedly from the sight of a dead rat that the cackling Burke dangles in his face, the queasy balance of power between the duo temporarily upended as their victim, folded in two and shoved in a crate ready for delivery, sits ignored in the corner. It’s as horrifyingly convincing a portrayal of base human villainy as you’re liable to find anywhere within the pulp realm.
Needless to say, with stuff like this going on, ‘The Flesh & The Fiends’ must have proved extremely strong meat for the British film industry in 1960. Perhaps it was the film’s more “serious” historical setting and ostensibly moralistic ending – or perhaps it’s black and white photography and relatively low profile – that allowed it to walk away uncut with an ‘X’ certificate? Who knows. Reading about the troubles Hammer were encountering with the censors at around this time, one imagines Hinds and Carreras would have been flogged in the street and exiled to the colonies if they’d dared to submit a film this packed with whiffy-looking corpses and gruelling on-screen killings for consideration by the BBFC.
This free pass from the censor seems especially curious given that, in stark contrast to the more black & white morality of the travelling theatre-derived Todd Slaughter-style speckle-flecked melodrama from which it draws much of its aesthetic inspiration, ‘The Flesh & The Fiends’ succeeds in asking considerably more complex ethical questions of the viewer than was common in horror films of this era.
Like Richard Fleischer’s ‘10 Rillington Place’ a decade later, Gilling’s film is crystal clear in its argument that, whilst predatory psychopaths and individuals prepared to kill for their own advancement are always with us (and should indeed be held accountable for their crimes), the wider social circumstances of poverty, ignorance and inequality that allow vulnerable people to fall victim to such predation are just as much to blame, if not more so.
In ‘The Flesh..’, these inequalities are personified by the figure of Dr Knox, the wealthy, educated man whose refusal to acknowledge – and willingness to even personally reward - the human suffering that underpins his work makes him the direct enabler of every single act of violence that takes place in the film. A frighteningly prescient metaphor for all of us 21st century first world consumers to ponder perhaps, but one that is problematised by an extremely divisive ending that appears to see the good doctor getting off scott-free. (Again, no pun intended.)
Whilst watching ‘The Flesh &The Fiends’ for the first time, I was absolutely astonished to see Gilling pull a last minute, Scrooge-style moral rebirth on Cushing’s character, exonerating him from blame with a round of applause and even granting him a cloying, moralistic closing speech, effectively allowing the eventual perpetrator of all of the film’s miseries a chance to begin his life anew as a changed man, whilst his lowly-born accomplices swing for the crime literally outside his window.
On first glance, this seems a sickening betrayal of the systematic demolition of hypocrisy within the social hierarchy that Gilling has undertaken across the preceding eighty-five minutes, but, really, the film’s final message all hinges on the way in which each viewer sees the very delicate shading given to the on-screen events falling.
On the surface of it, this is a facile/contrived happy ending that senselessly undermines the message of what has come before; but, if we look past Cushing’s earnest portrayal of a sinner reborn a saint, and the valedictory applause of his sycophantic pupils, we perhaps see a coal-black glint of the director’s true intent shining through.
Because, Gilling seems to dare us to realise for ourselves, this is the way it always goes down in the real world, isn’t it? Time after time, the rich, well-presented man allowed a “second chance”, applauded for his humble recognition of his own “mistakes”, whilst the disreputable lackeys who did his dirty work meanwhile hang dead from the gallows, or succumb to the mob who bay for their blood.
Look around you, skim through today’s paper – it’s happening right now, just as it did in Edinburgh in 1828. Where do you stand, between the jeering of the mob and the empty applause of the students, Gilling seems to be asking us. Because at the end of the day, those are the only choices you’ve got buster, and no square-jawed young hero is going to storm in to change jack shit.