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The Flesh and The Fiends (1959)

The Flesh and The Fiends sets out its stall immediately, with two "resurrectionists" at work, stealing a nastily stiff body from a grave.

We're immediately transported to the Academy Of Doctor Knox (Edinburh, 1828 for those of us who need to know these things, personally I couldn't give a toss if it was set in Rhyl, 1978). After being visited by his niece, Martha, he starts his lecture: "You men of medicine are the modern miracle makers," he tells his rapt audience of sideburned youngsters, going on to describe theirs as "the most honourable profession in the world". However, Knox' idea of "honourable" might not be the same as yours or mine…

"Death is an incident producing clay, " (oh-oh…) "Use it, mould it, learn from it…"

Yes, Cushing (complete with "evil" wonky eye) is once again playing a Baron Frankenstein figure - only this time the character is based on fact. It's not long before he's taken on a failing student to help in his "laboratory", where he takes delivery of the freshly dug-up corpse from scene one.

The student (who goes by the name of Chris Jackson) is sent to a dodgy pub to pay the grave robbers for their work, but him being a complete arse manages to immediately get into a fight and is saved by tart-with-a-heart ™ Mary (Billie Whitelaw) and her trusty bottle (ouch!). Unfortunately, the amount Jackson paid the grave robbers was spotted by none other than Burke and Hare, who decide to mug him outside the pub, necessitating a further rescue by the spunky Mary. For some bizarre reason best know to herself, Mary decides that this obvious arse is an attractive proposition (women, eh?), and Jackson finds himself with a common-as-muck girlfriend.

Back at Burke's lodging house, his tenant drops down dead from natural causes, and the pair decide that they might as well earn a few bob from this and pay Dr Knox a call. Meanwhile, the good Doctor is busy insulting his friends and enemies at a party. "That man is doing the devil's work" says one scandalised fat bloke. "Aye, he does it brilliantly…" another adds.

Burke and Hare are busy spending their not-very hard earned in the pub, and decide they need more so entice "Old Aggie" back to Burke's house and suffocate her. "Sure, the old girl's better off," says Hare. "She bit my hand," complains Burke, who did the dirty deed. "Well, you can't blame her for that…" comes the reply.

Jackson's work is now suffering quite badly, thanks to Mary. In fact, the woman is a bloody nightmare - getting rat arsed and setting fire to his work. As Burke and Hare continue to murder Burke's tenants and cart the remains up to Knox, he explains his reasoning to his partner, Mitchell: "I will continue to teach anatomy using the best specimens available, to turn out doctors to replace quacks!"

Finally, Jackson realises that Mary is doing his college work no good at all, and chucks her. Sadly, this only serves to drive her into the waiting clutches of Burke and Hare, and she lasts approximately 30 seconds. Mrs Burke arrives home shortly after the deed, but instead of enquiring why there's a body on her floor, is more concerned with her husband's fidelity.

"Nobody touched her!" says Hare.

"Willy just killed her, that's all!" a scandalised Burke adds.

So that's okay, then. Of course it's not long before Jackson, at work in the laboratory, takes delivery of Mary's still-warm corpse (in a moment that really needs a comedy "wa-wa" noise). He rushes round to Burke's house to confront the man, but gets a knife in the back.

Burke and Hare realise they are now in serious trouble, and have to murder another innocent, the marvellously named Daft Jamie, in one of the most brutal scenes I've seen in a Brit horror flick. Although I'm sure I'm not the only person who considers the sight of Melvyn Hayes being beaten to death in a pile of pig shit a positive bonus to any film.

But the mob is closing in anyway, and the writing's on the wall for Knox, too - who, against his better judgement, has taken delivery of Daft Jamie's body.

The Flesh And The Fiends is brilliant - don't let its age and the fact it's black and white put you off. Cushing's portrayal of Knox is a work of genius - touching on Baron Frankenstein at times, but eventually showing him to be a misguided fool. He only wants to help the human race, and simply sees bodies as his "clay" to work with - after all, they're already dead, aren't they? Rather than being a cold and calculating killer (as Frankenstein is in many of the Hammers) he's simply turning a blind eye (ho ho) to what he knows Burke and Hare are getting up to.

But Cushing's performance is not the only highlight - Whitelaw is on top form as busty Mary, and Pleasance is fantastic (dodgy Oirish accent aside) as Hare. Any point were he and George Rose (Burke) are n the screen together is played for all the dark comedy it can get - even when they are brutally murdering people, they're still funny.

Just when you think it can't get any better, you have angry mob justice (wait til you see what happens to Pleasance), and a road-to-Damascus realisation of what's going on by the misguided Knox.

"As a child I believed in God and the devil, it took a child to show me what I am now. I have failed. Yes, I have failed."

Last updated: February 22, 2010

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