The Flesh and the Fiends

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The Flesh and the Fiends
The Flesh and the Fiends FilmPoster.jpeg
A poster bearing the film's American title: Mania
Directed by John Gilling
Produced by Robert S. Baker
Monty Berman
Written by John Gilling (story and screenplay)
Leon Griffiths (screenplay)
Starring Peter Cushing
June Laverick
Donald Pleasence
George Rose
Music by Stanley Black
Distributed by Regal Film Distributors (UK)
Valiant (US)
Release dates
  • 2 February 1960 (1960-02-02) (UK)
  • 24 January 1961 (1961-01-24) (U.S.)
Country United Kingdom
Language English

The Flesh and the Fiends (US title Mania) is a 1960 British horror film directed by John Gilling. It stars Peter Cushing as 19th-century medical doctor Robert Knox, who purchases human corpses for research from a murderous pair named Burke and Hare (George Rose and Donald Pleasence).[1] The film is based on the true case of Burke and Hare, who murdered at least 16 people in 1828 Edinburgh, Scotland and sold their bodies for anatomical research.


In 1828 Edinburgh, Scotland, Dr. Knox (Peter Cushing) is a highly skilled anatomist who draws large crowds of medical students to his lectures on the human body. Though he is constantly at odds with his stuffy, backwards colleagues, he is highly venerated by his students and believes his duty is to push the medical profession forward. Unfortunately, due to the laws of the time very few cadavers are legally available to the medical profession, necessitating the use of graverobbers or "Resurrection men" to procure additional specimens. Dr. Knox's assistant Dr. Mitchell (Dermot Walsh) and a young student named Jackson (John Cairney) and are given the task of buying the bodies, which are worth a small fortune... especially when fresh.

Meanwhile, drunken miscreants William Burke (George Rose) and William Hare (Donald Pleasence) discover that a lodger at Burke's boarding house has died still owing £4 in rent. When they find that the body can make them a handsome profit, they begin a career of murdering locals and selling them to the medical school. When Jackson goes to a local tavern to give Burke and Hare their pay, he becomes involved with tempestuous local prostitute Mary Patterson (Billie Whitelaw), who is also well-known to the killers.

Over time, Jackson and Mitchell begin to suspect that the bodies supplied by Burke and Hare are victims of foul play. Despite their concerns, Dr. Knox dismisses any attempt at going to the police. When Jackson's new girlfriend Mary becomes their latest victim, Jackson discovers her body in the lecture room and he too is killed when he confronts the murderous duo. When they murder a well-known mentally ill youth (Melvyn Hayes), however, they quickly become murder suspects and are caught by an angry mob. Hare agrees to turn King's Evidence against his former partner and is set free, though vindictive locals catch him and burn out his eyes. Burke is executed by hanging, still complaining that Dr. Knox never paid him for the final body. Knox, for his part in the killings, is the object of widespread public outrage, but ultimately not punished or censured by his colleagues (to whom Dr. Mitchell eloquently defends him). Though he is free to continue lecturing, he ultimately feels guilt over his part in the horrors, admitting to his devoted niece Martha (June Laverick) that the murder victims "seemed so small in my scheme of things. But I knew how they died." The film ends with Knox, who assumes his lectures will now be empty, instead finding himself greeted with applause from a packed hall of students. Apparently a changed man, he begins his lecture with the Hippocratic Oath which includes the promise to "never do harm to anyone."



Writer/director John Gilling had previously written a film about Burke and Hare entitled The Greed of William Hart in 1948. At that time, however, the British Board of Film Censors demanded that all references to the real-life killers were removed, and so Gilling was forced to rename the killers and several other key characters. The Flesh and the Fiends restores the correct historical names and begins with the text: "[this] is a story of vice and murder. We make no apologies to the dead. It is all true." Gilling, along with Producers Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman of Tempean Films, formed Triad Productions specifically to make the film.[2] It was the first horror film to feature newly minted horror star Peter Cushing that was not produced by Hammer Studios.

In his autobiography, Cushing --who had been catapulted to fame by his portrayal of Dr. Victor Frankenstein in 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein-- compared the role of Dr. Knox to his most famous character: "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."[3]

The drooping left eye which Cushing uses in his performance (emphasized in many of the film's posters, though not in the American one) is accurate to the real Dr. Knox, who had his left eye destroyed and his face disfigured by smallpox he contracted as an infant. [4]


The film was a box office disappointment.[1]


  1. ^ a b John Hamilton, The British Independent Horror Film 1951-70 Hemlock Books 2013 p 61-67
  2. ^ Christopher Gullo (2004). "Chapter 3: Mr Television and the New Karloff (1950's)". In All Sincerity, Peter Cushing. Xlibris. p. 140. ISBN 978-1413456103. 
  3. ^ Christopher Gullo (2004). "Chapter 3: Mr Television and the New Karloff (1950's)". In All Sincerity, Peter Cushing. Xlibris. p. 139. ISBN 978-1413456103. 
  4. ^ Bates, A.W. (2010). The Anatomy of Robert Knox: Murder, Mad Science and Medical Regulation in Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-84519-381-2. 

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