Now Streaming: THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, Peter Cushing, By Any Means Necessary
Peter Cushing stars in the disturbing story of the notorious Burke and Hare, now streaming on Shudder.
Doctor, doctor, I need a dead body.
The Flesh and the Fiends
Now streaming on Shudder.
What makes Peter Cushing so terrifying in this historical horror picture is that he believes in what he is doing.
Cushing, coming off a string of Hammer horror hits -- starting with 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein -- brought a wonderful depth of charming confidence to his role as Doctor Knox, an instructor at a medical school who is constantly in search of freshly dead bodies that will allow him to provide better instruction to his students. The good doctor is confident that the righteous purpose to which he puts the corpses -- allowing him to better teach his students to become better physicians and also better prepared to treat patients -- outweighs the grubby details about where, exactly, the corpses are coming from.
Set in 1832, the film establishes Edinburgh, Scotland as a bustling, though grimy place that nonetheless had become a premiere location for anatomical studies. Concerned about the shortage of suitable corpses that were availabilie through legal means, Doctor Knox has adapted a secretive policy of 'no questions asked.' When one of his students unwisely pays off two corpse-robbers in a public setting, the prospect of making good coin arouses the interest of Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasance), who are willing to do anything for a buck.
The story develops from there and becomes more disturbing as it proceeds, especially in the person of Pleasance, who represents something like true evil, a force of evil who grows increasingly bold in his criminal treachery. That contrasts with Cushing's performance as Doctor Knox, who becomes a force of unintended evil because he blinds himself to the source of the fresh corpses that Burke and Hare continue to deposit in the medical school's dank basement.
Some might be put off by the year of the film's original theatrical release (1960) or by the grotty-looking black-and-white cinematography. I started watching the film with an eye primarily on Cushing, but the story and the setting and his character's sincerity wore me down with its relevance to the modern day.
Truly, how many devoutly sincere people do things that hurt other people directly, or contribute to actions that are harmful or even murderous, simply through their own decision to remain ignorant? These are themes that are weaved into modern horror stories, and for good reason. Here, the message is perhaps best captured by Peter Cushing's facial expression as he finally realizes the damage that his conduct has wrought.
Cushing continued busy in his professional career in films, television, and the stage, though his personal life took a bad turn when his beloved wife died in January 1971. He continued his acting career, though a patina of sadness followed him. He was always professional, and quite often compelling, always putting the film itself ahead of his own performance.
Shudder is now streaming this film as well as three other, enjoyable, non-Hammer productions from the early 1970s featuring his strong, elegant presence -- Asylum, And Now the Screaming Starts!, The Beast Must Die (more on that film here) -- which contribute to an essential understanding of Peter Cushing and a movie star.
Now Streaming covers international and indie genre films and TV shows that are available on legal streaming services.