CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
Recently in conversation with another fan I made the claim that Peter Cushing’s finest film role was as Dr. Robert Knox, the Edinburgh anatomist, in the film THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS (known in the U.S. as MANIA and, later, as THE FIENDISH GHOULS). I was told that I had made a bold claim so it seems that a defense is in order.
The role of Dr. Knox allowing Cushing to re-visit three of his more famous characterizations. Knox has the brilliance and impatience with stupidity of Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes, the steely determination of his Baron Victor Frankenstein and, albeit not until the closing moments of the film, the humanity of his Professor Abraham van Helsing. Quite a lot to cram into one character. While Holmes and van Helsing never really change, Knox is finally forced to confront the man that he has become. Yet Knox is no Baron Frankenstein, attempting to create life, he is a doctor attempting to train medical students to become competent surgeons–all in all, a praiseworthy enterprise. Because the laws of the day limited cadavers for dissection to those of executed criminals, and because Knox knows that the occasional moldering corpse won’t be enough to train tomorrow’s surgeons, he deals with “resurrectionists”–grave-robbers who provide him with fresh specimens, no questions asked.
On one hand director John Gilling shows us what Knox must contend with in the person of actor George Woodbridge’s brutish surgeon who relays upon the strength of his arms, on the other he presents us with Willie Burke and William Hare–Knox’s chief “suppliers.” If Knox is to train men who will not be “better suited as laborers on the Caledonian Canal,” he has to deal with Burke and Hare. Nobody provides fresher corpses because rather than strain their backs digging up coffins, they simply murder down-and-outers. While Knox clearly has his suspicions about the number of excellent specimens they provide, he is delighted with the quality of their merchandise.
People who find fault with the film generally complain not about Cushing, but about the performances of George Rose and Donald Pleasence, who played Burke and Hare. To be sure they gave florid, almost theatrical performances, complete with a thick Irish brogue, but they were playing characters out of an 1827 horror story and they conveyed a nice sense of “otherness.” Their victims are lower class Scots so they all speak with heavy Scottish accents. Only Cushing and his upper-class colleagues speak “proper English.” I found Rose’s snuggle-toothed thug and Pleasence’s oily Hare, in his resplendent waistcoat, to be quite acceptable in their roles. The fact that the supercilious Knox has dealings with such characters as these speaks worlds about the situation he finds himself in when in one of film’s closing scenes, a young girl whom he tries to befriend backs away from him in fear that he will “sell me to Dr. Knox.”
With Burke hanged and Hare mobbed and blinded, Knox appears to get off lightly–not even his fellow physicians dare to publically condemn him, since all have trafficked in stolen corpses–but his judgment comes first from the lips of a child, and then from his own lips when he finally confesses that he knew that Burke and Hare were murdering the subjects that they bought to his academy and that he was dealing with them, not solely for the sake of medical progress, but also to satisfy his own desire for accomplishment. This sort of performance can easily shade into bathos and Cushing allows Knox his moment of self-pity as he grandly announces that he has never missed a lecture–even if he will lecture to empty walls. But as he makes his way to the surgical theater, and he picks up the buzz of student activity, we see a faint glimmer of gratitude play across his features. Greeted by a standing ovation, rather than launching into his usual dry recitation on “the human machine,” Dr. Knox recites the Hippocratic Oath to his students. Yes, I think that THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS was Peter Cushing’s finest hour.