Showing posts with label Burke and Hare movies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Burke and Hare movies. Show all posts

Monday, November 18, 2019

underseen for Halloween 2019, Part 3: The Doctor and the Devils (1985)

(spoilers throughout)

           Roger Ebert called The Doctor and the Devils “unredeemed, dreary, boring, gloomy dreck.”  It is gloomy.  It's also mournfully distinctive, for this writer, and beautifully produced, both painterly and disgusting.  The last helps earn the horror tag, though it’s as much a period dramatization.  It's a based-on-truth Frankenstein movie.     
 from Shout! Factory
Despite the billing, the focus is the working class.  In early-19th century Britain, outdated mores forced a black market in fresh cadavers (for medical research), when the enterprising Fallon (Jonathan Pryce) and Broom (Stephen Rea) take up shovels.  Before it's done, at least one is a serial-killer avant la lettre.  Their patron is Dr. Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton), a progressive surgeon secure in his own virtue.  Rounding the eclectic cast are Julian Sands (who’d become a minor horror star) as a naif who falls for a bleak-minded whore (played by ‘60s model Twiggy), with Patrick Stewart as Rock’s fuming rival.
The milieu may evoke Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (and Michael Radford’s), though the Orwellian hell is government surveillance, which could've helped here.  Also, we may recall Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and true-crime biopics like In Cold Blood.  As were the The Body-Snatcher (1945) and The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), The Doctor and the Devils was inspired by the real Burke and Hare, suppliers to one Dr. Knox.  (Fiction can’t improve on the names.)  
Mostly, this film gets mixed reviews.  On Slant, Chuck Bowen ends a mostly positive review thus:

The Doctor and the Devils shares Rock’s problem: decrying the state of humanity while displaying precious little of its own.   
the Fox release

DVD Savant Glenn Erickson charges Freddie Francis with indifference:

there's no indication of a director doing anything more than illustrating a script. … this picture just plays out in a flat line. It's handsome and intelligent, but it doesn't grab us.

Well, it’s a hothouse flower.  Still, degrees of success shouldn’t prevent wonder at what's attempted: it's a rare film that disclaims Manichaeism, portraying modernity as an exploitation matrix.  (It seems hard to deny; I've written of our moral entanglement, as in this essay on The Sopranos.)  
The film's pedigree is impressive, and instructive.  Poet Dylan Thomas's screenplay was a pre-Black List item, unproduced for 30 years.  Producer Mel Brooks reportedly wanted major changes, but director Francis lobbied for a faithful adaptation, leading to revisions by Ronald Harwood.  
Harwood, best known for The Dresser, also wrote a series of plays and films about 20th century celebrities in relation to Nazi Germany, including The Pianist.  The Doctor and the Devils contains intimations of genocide, as do The Elephant Man and The Fly, other Mel Brooks productions.  (Of course, Mr. Brooks is Jewish.  He served in the U.S. military during World War II, later daring to make The Producers.)
             As Jim Knipfel describes on den of geek, several narrative films stay reasonably close to Burke and Hare.  Accuracy aside, and even with a tacked-on reprieve for the Twiggy character, The Doctor and the Devils is the least pandering version.  The others carefully delineate characters from viewers, as in casting the doctor: in The Flesh and the Fiends it's Peter Cushing, already known as Dr. Frankenstein, and it's uber-unnerving Henry Daniell in The Body-Snatcher (in an insipid subplot, Daniell initially refuses a disabled girl a needed operation).  Thriller "The Innocent Bystanders" (1962) is disgraceful, as it exaggerates a story that's terrible to begin with.  In each of these, one of the killers is made a (literal) moron, and a prominent victim, a beautiful woman.   
The Doctor and the Devils skips the doctor's noble, half-false confession (another trope), leaving him haunted by memories and conscience.  And if Dr. Rock was willfully ignorant of the origins of same-day deliveries, are we so different?  
The three films reviewed in these Halloween 2019 posts are prophetic works, and have been knocked about: It’s Alive was dumped by Warner Brothers, but Larry Cohen persevered, and it became a hit three years after initial release.  Both Vampire Circus and The Doctor and the Devils suffered late cuts.  The critics hedge, e.g., Danny Peary condemns It’s Alive for a “shameful premise.”  According to Peter Nichols, “Vampire Circus isn’t so much a good film as a good bad film” (whatever that means). 
However different in style — having the aspect of Fellini-gazing horror, grindhouse sick-joke, and PBS adaptation — the films share a moral perspective.  They lack villains, excepting the vampires (who only do-what-vampires-do), and heroes, vessels for the innocence of viewers.  If they overreach — if The Doctor and the Devils is self-serious, Vampire Circus, a bit overfed, and if Larry Cohen made a motion picture about an action figure — prophets also self-sabotage.  He wants to protect his culture, almost as much as he wants to damn it.