In the 1940s, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote a screenplay based on the real-life exploits of 19th century serial murderers Burke and Hare, but it remained unfilmed. In the ensuing years, a number of films touched upon that very theme of grave robbers supplying corpses to medical schools including Robert Wise’s Karloff/Lugosi vehicle THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART with Tod Slaughter and THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS with Peter Cushing as Dr. Knox and Donald Pleasence and George Rose as the baddie duo. For THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS, screenwriter Ronald Harwood (THE DRESSER) reworks Thomas’ original screenplay for a rare 1980s return to more traditional gothic horror, and the welcomed return of genre director Freddie Francis, who hadn’t helmed a feature film for at least a decade.
In 19th Century Edinburgh, Scotland, innovative anatomist Dr. Rock (a pre-James Bond Timothy Dalton, AIP’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS) runs a medical school near a very poor part of society inhabited by vagrants, drunkards and prostitutes. So dedicated to his work and the lectures he holds before a crowded classroom, Rock brings human cadavers into his demonstrations for a more hands-on approach. Needing fresher corpses to supply to Rock than the ones they are digging out of the graves, boarding house operators Robert Fallon (Jonathan Pryce, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES) and Timothy Broom (Stephen Rea, THE CRYING GAME) take to murder, numbing their victims with alcohol and suffocating them with a pillow. Not considering where the gruesome twosome get their victims or how they died and only thinking for the sake of truth and science, Rock is perfectly content to keep paying Fallon and Broom, as long as they delivery. But his young assistant Dr. Murray (Julian Sands, WARLOCK) is suspicious that these cadavers are murder victims and things get personal when Jennie Bailey (Twiggy, THE BOY FRIEND), a prostitute he’s fallen madly in love with, is believed to be the next victim making him take matters into his own enraged hands.
In the early 1980s, Freddie Francis had returned to cinematography after more than fifteen years with THE ELEPHANT MAN, produced for Mel Brooks’ company Brooksfilms. With the association between the two already concreted, Francis very much wanted to direct this Brooks project based on “Burke and Hare”, and it was a return to form in terms of the kind of gothic horrors he used to direct for Hammer and Amicus (and he hadn’t been in the director’s chair since THE GHOUL and LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, produced for his son Kevin in the mid 1970s). Even though it was Francis’ intention not to make another Hammer or Amicus clone, it seemed doubtless that his name associated with such a film would generate some interest among seasoned horror fans, but Fox’s release of it didn’t have much promotion at all, and it only played in a few select cities, thus failing miserably at the box office. A period drama with horror overtones playing during an era of big budget action films, effect-fueled sci-fi epics and the endless slasher cycle obviously didn’t have a chance. Stylized, literate, competently directed and extremely well-acted, with occasional glimpses of gore, THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS’ biggest flaw is that the central plot and the material within is overly familiar (not to mention that its overshadowed by the earlier similar and superior THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS) but it has a lot going for it and is ripe for rediscovery.
Naturally, for fans of classic British gothic, this is a throwback to the kind of films being made during the golden period (1957-1973) and it was shot in Shepperton Studios with impressive period sets (including a truly dingy, poverty-ridden marketplace) and the experience here shows in veteran cinematographers Gerry Turpin (WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL?) and Norman Warwick (THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES). The film is perfectly cast in its leads (Dalton a likable yet totally self-indulgent Dr. Rock and Pryce and Rea over-the-top and grossly unscrupulous) and also featured in support are Phyllis Logan (“Downton Abbey”) as Rock’s wife, Siân Phillips (CLASH OF THE TITANS) as his older sister and Australian-born frequent horror star Lewis Fiander (DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN, WHO WOULD KILL A CHILD?) as his friend and colleague. A pre-”Star Trek: The Next Generation” Patrick Stewart (he was in Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE the same year) has a small but memorable role as a professor opposed to Rock’s unethical behavior (and the fact that he’s way more popular with the students). The best supporting appearance comes from veteran actress Beryl Reid (THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR) as a relative-seeking traveler who falls into the path of Fallon and Broom and proves difficult to snuff out! Of course those followers of British horror with a keen eye will notice Jennifer Jayne (the vampiress in Francis’ DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS) as a barmaid, Roy Evans (who had numerous walk-on bit parts in British horror films such as THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD) as a sewerman and Hedger Wallace (also in numerous Francis films such as TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE CREEPING FLESH) as a fellow doctor.
First released on DVD in 2005 by Fox on a disc which featured both anamorphic widescreen and fullscreen versions, Scream Factory has licensed the film from them for this HD upgrade, presented in 1080p in the original 2.35:1 Scope aspect ratio. With the film being shot in Fujicolor (rather than using the more expensive Eastman stock) to achieve a more pastel, neutral effect and a subdued palette, colors are just that and look correct throughout. The film purposely has a dark and gloomy look to it (and a lot of diffused lighting), but detail is still very sharp and interior shots especially have nice contrast. The mono English track is offered in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 which has good range and clarity. Optional English subtitles are included.
Extras include a solid featurette (15:42) which is a conversation between executive producer Mel Brooks and producers Jonathan Sanger and Randy Auerbach, as they relay how Brooks’ name is almost exclusively associated with comedy, and how the project came to his attention. Brooks was very enthusiastic about the project (wanting to treat the material “eloquently”) and the producers’ intention was not to make a common slasher-type film. It’s also learned that Freddie Francis very much wanted to direct the film from the onset (and they were not opposed to take advantage of his Hammer fanbase), and that they brought back a number of crew from THE ELEPHANT MAN, and that the sets at Shepperton Studios were built exclusively for this film. Brooks, who puts the overall budget at around $5 million, tells how much the movie business has changed over the years, and not for the better. Film historian Steve Haberman (who has actually written screenplays for several 1990s Mel Brooks comedies) sits down for a fact-filled commentary on the subject of the real “Burke and Hare” and all things related including the writing of Dylan Thomas, the various film versions and the film in question. The original Fox theatrical trailer rounds out the extras. (George R. Reis)
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