Flesh and the Fiends



PETER CUSHING - Dr. Robert Knox, JUNE LAVERICK - Martha, DONALD PLEASANCE - Willie Hare, DERMOT WALSH - Dr. Mitchell, RENEE HOUSTON - Helen Burke, GEORGE ROSE - Willie Burke, BILLIE WHITELAW - Mary Paterson, JOHN CAIRNEY - Chris Jackson, MELVYN HAYES - Daft Jamie, JUNE POWELL - Maggie O'Hara, GEOFFREY TYRRELL - Old Davey, BECKETT BOULD - Old Angus, GEORGE BISHOP - Blind Man, PHILIP LEAVER - Dr. Elliott, GEORGE WOODBRIDGE - Dr. Ferguson, JOHN RAE - Reverend Lincoln, ANDREW FAULDS - Inspector McCulloch, ESMA CANNON - Aggie, RAF DE LA TORRE - Baxter, MICHAEL BALFOUR - Drunken Sailor, GEORGE STREET - Barman, MICHAEL MULCASTER - Undertaker, JACK McNAUGHTON - Stallholder


Director - JOHN GILLING, Producers - ROBERT S. BAKER & MONTY BERMAN, Screenplay - JOHN GILLING & LEON CAIRNEY, Music - STANLEY BLACK, Editor - JACK SLADE, Director of Photography - MONTY BERMAN, Art Direction - JOHN ELPHICK, Based on a story by JOHN GILLING.



"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."

In England in the early 19th Century a most lucrative business flourished among grave robbers, known as "ghouls", in selling cadavers to certain members of the medical profession so that they could further their secret experiments.

Dr. Knox (PETER CUSHING) runs an academy for medical students in Edinburgh. He is a respected but feared member of the medical profession for his advanced knowledge and impatience for people who stand in his way of progress. Since it is illegal to obtain bodies for research unless they are condemned criminals, Dr. Knox must deal with grave robbers in order to obtain subjects in which to teach his students. 

Burke (GEORGE ROSE) and Hare (DONALD PLEASANCE) are two men who avoid work, inhabit pubs, and are always looking for a way to make a quick and easy profit. They see one of Dr. Knox's students, Chris Jackson (JOHN CAIRNEY) pay off two men who had previously provided a body for the doctor. A local dancer/prostitute, Mary Paterson (BILLIE WHITELAW) also sees Jackson as a way out of her dreary life. As Chris leaves the pub he is followed by Burke and Hare who attack him for his money. Mary comes to his rescue as she sees the attack and yells for help scaring off Burke and Hare. After attending to Chris's wounds, Mary seduces him and a relationship begins.

Meanwhile, Burke and Hare are presented by Burke's wife, Helen (RENEE HOUSTON) with the body of a tenant who died in the night. Hare reasons that since the tenant died owing Burke money that they should sell the body to Dr. Knox in order to reclaim their loss. Dr. Knox is impressed with the freshness of the corpse but does not question the two men where they acquired it from. Burke and Hare spend the money quickly and evil thoughts creep into their heads as to how to get more money...

The business of selling cadavers becomes so profitable that Burke and Hare, in their greed, extend their activities and begin an orgy of murder in order to get additional "specimens". They stealthily stalk their victims in dark, eerie streets, narrow alleys and hallways, pouncing upon them and murdering them in cold blood - no living person was safe. As the victims pile up, the townspeople begin to draw a connection as to what is going on which leads to frightening consequences for all involved.


by Christopher Gullo

Dr. Knox - "Miracles, gentlemen, are an apology for ignorance and a retreat for fools. To primitive man, the human body was a miracle. To us, it is a structure...a complicated structure, yes, but no longer a miracle."

'Flesh and the Fiends' is one of my favorite Peter Cushing films. Unlike many other of his 'Horror' films, this is one which is truly 'horrible' because the characters were all based on real people and events. The film features some startling and shocking images for film audiences of 1960. The opening scene of a corpse being ripped from the ground must have scared some patrons as stiff as the corpse. Not only are cadavers abound, but there is a high violence content mostly thanks to Burke and Hare's activities. Strangulations and stabbings by the two men are presented in unflinching reality. Pleasance's character Hare is the most unsettling - he mocks an old woman as she is being strangled by Burke, viciously kills the girlfriend of Chris Jackson and even throws his partner Burke to the mob as he tries to escape from his evil deeds. This film is one of Pleasance's greatest roles, you can see that he throws everything he has into the character of Hare. He even steals most scenes that he is in giving Peter Cushing a run for his money. Perhaps as a  nod to the BBC version of George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' (1954) which starred both Cushing and Pleasance, Pleasance's Hare has a severe fear of rats much like Cushing's character of Winston Smith did in the BBC teleplay. 

Peter Cushing is outstanding as Dr. Knox, a man who will let nothing stop him in his pursuit of medical progress, even morals. In his autobiography, Cushing stated that, "Now, it seemed to me that Knox and 'Frankenstein' had a lot in common. The minds of these exceptional men were driven by a single desire: to inquire into the unknown. Ahead of their time, like most great scientists, their work and motives were misunderstood." The two characters are indeed very similar with the edge probably going to Dr. Knox. After all, Dr. Knox was able to realize his mistakes and continue in his profession while Baron Frankenstein was forced to go into hiding as the medical community hunted him down. In Dr. Knox's favor, he did have trusting colleagues such as Dr. Mitchell (DERMOT WALSH) who came to his rescue when the medical community brought him up on charges. Another interesting aspect about the character of Dr. Knox is his bitingly sharp sarcastic attitude. Members of the medical community who he feels are beneath his ability are constantly the targets of his sarcasm. In fact, if you pay careful attention to the dialogue in the film you will notice that many of the characters display their own brand of sarcasm. 

The director of the film, John Gilling, would go on to make two films for Hammer Productions - 'Plague of the Zombies', and 'The Reptile'. Besides these he also wrote 60 screenplays and directed 26 films before dying at the age 74 in 1985. Producers Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman formed Triad Productions with director John Gilling in order to make the film. This marked the first instance of a company taking Cushing from Hammer to take advantage of his new reputation as a 'Horror' star. Another related fact was that 'Flesh and the Fiends' is a remake of the Tod Slaughter vehicle 'The Greed of William Hart.'

The film was well received by critics - THE TIMES (February 8, 1960) "Mr. John Gilling has a feeling for the period and is well-supported by Mr. Peter Cushing as Dr. Knox, a sarcastic and autocratic figure, whose only interest lies in the pursuit of anatomical knowledge." VARIETY (February 10, 1960) "Peter Cushing, playing Knox, is an expert in this sort of fare. He knows that any parody is fatal and so he plays the part with straightforward sincerity, dignity, and authority."

The sets and music are impressive and make the film feel more expensive than it probably was. If 'Flesh and the Fiends' had been filmed in color, the viewer could easily mistake it for a Hammer film. The shock value still holds up today and you would be hard pressed to find another film from this period that packs such a frighteningly, suspenseful punch.

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The Fiendish Ghouls Pressbook

Peter Cushing: An Autobiography & Past Forgetting by Peter Cushing

Peter Cushing: The Gentle Man of Horror and His 91 Films by Del Vecchio & Johnson

The Peter Cushing Companion by David Miller

Fragments of Fear by Andy Boot