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STUDIO Shout! Factory
RUNNING TIME 93 minutes
• Interview with Mel Brooks, Jonathan Sanger, and Randy Auerbach
• Commentary with Author Steve Haberman
A dull Burke and Hare movie lovingly presented by Scream Factory.
Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Rea, Twiggy, Patrick Stewart
Based on Dylan Thomas’ original screenplay, this shocking horror-thriller stars Timothy Dalton as Thomas Rock, a brilliant young anatomy professor in 1820s Edinburgh. At first accepting only the cadavers provided him for study, those of a few hanged criminals per year, Rock eventually recruits two grave robbers (Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea) to secure a better supply of corpses. Coming to the gory conclusion that they will earn more the fresher the corpses, the two begin committing murder and delivering warm bodies to the doctor’s lecture chambers.
Edinburgh, 1828. Two alcoholic Irish weirdos killed a whole buncha folks, shoved their still-warm corpses into barrels and trunks, and sold them to a doctor Knox, an anatomist who used them for research. Those two weirdos were William Burke and William Hare, and their infamous true story has been adapted many times across several formats. Of all the films inspired by the Burke and Hare murders, only a select few come close to good. Most of them are complete bores, despite the trend of excellent casting. Karloff and Lugosi starred in 1945’s The Body Snatcher. 1960’s The Flesh and The Fiends starred Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance, Alastair Sim, and Billie Whitelaw. John Landis’ version of the story starred Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, and Tom Wilkinson. The Doctor and the Devils, produced under Mel Brooks’ Brooksfilms label, follows that casting trend. But like most Burke and Hare films, it’s an utter bore.
Based on a 1953 screenplay by poet Dylan “Do Not Go Gentle” Thomas and adapted by screenwriter Ronald Harwood (Polanski’s The Pianist), the film transposes the events to a bizarro Edinburgh where minor characters traipse around covered in soot and grease, squawking at one another in harsh cockney accents. We all know how much that does for a story that takes place in Scotland, don’t we, guv’na? Showing off their thickest, silliest accents are Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea, acting as the film’s Burke and Hare stand-ins: Broom and Fallon. Timothy Dalton plays the Knox character, renamed Doctor Rock. Rock is a one-note pompous blowhard; the kind of guy who walks into any room like he’s there to deliver a performance. When asked how he knows which artery is severed in the leg of a patient, Rock barks “KNOWLEDGE!!”. I half expected to hear a long, high-pitched whine, the sound of the relief valve on Rock’s ego blowing off the excess. His introductory monologue is quite literally an introductory monologue to other characters, and it might as well be “I AM DOCTOR ROCK, AND THESE ARE MY DEFINING PRINCIPLES!” He speaks his bare intentions and motivations, sucking any trace of subtext or subtlety out of the character.
Come to think of it, that criticism applies to the film on a macro level. All of the other characters are one-note and devoid of nuance. It’s a terribly bald-faced film, and prefers to tell its story through bald-faced dialogue. That’s no surprise when the film is based on a screenplay by Dylan freakin’ Thomas, and most of his original dialogue is intact. While director Freddie Francis composed his shots well and the film’s color palette is rich and inky, visual storytelling takes a backseat to clumsy verbal exposition. It’s an awfully talky film, and I suppose it has to be, because the narrative is structured in a way that feels insubstantial. There’s no intrigue or fun in it. No interesting drama, no struggle. We know Broom and Fallon will get what’s coming to them, and the film alternates between the drudgery of murder and boring subplots until the perpetrators are caught. The subplots — featuring Twiggy as a prostitute and Patrick Stewart as a man with a bitchin’ comb over — don’t serve the main plot in interesting ways. The romance/Twiggy subplot provides some additional structure at the climax, but is otherwise given entirely too much screen time.
Structure is a big issue with Burke and Hare movies. Most of them use a similar template: tell the story of how the two murderers discovered the “resurrectionist” trade, and how they sold the bodies. In the case of The Doctor and The Devils, the story is structured as a three-hander, and not a single one of these three main characters feels like anyone we’d want to watch for ninety-three minutes. Broom and Fallon are disgusting and boorish, and Rock is an arrogant dandy. The romantic Twiggy subplot is an attempt to give the film some warmth, but her chemistry with Rock’s foppish apprentice is nonexistent. The meat of the movie (if you’ll pardon the pun) is morality horror, but the film neither moralizes nor horrifies. Most of us love a good murder story, but the lasting fascination with Burke and Hare largely has to do with the trial and execution of Burke. The trial took place on Christmas Eve, lasted 24 hours, and the death penalty came down on Burke. He was to be hanged, and in accordance with his crimes, publicly dissected, anatomized, and his skeleton preserved. Yeah, for real. His skeleton is still on display at the Edinburgh Medical School. Oh, and there’s a book bound in his skin. Ain’t that some shit?
There’s a perverse delight to knowing that Burke had such a fitting end, but The Doctor and The Devils takes no delight in its own wickedness. It’s bogged down by its po-faced nature, and too often eschews good visual storytelling for broad dialogue. Like most Burke and Hare films, this one doesn’t find a way to make their fascinating story into good cinema.
As is customary for Scream Factory, the transfer is really nice. The flick may be crusty and claustrophobic, but the quality of the transfer shows it off well. Colors are nicely saturated, blacks are deep, and while detail levels aren’t super sharp, that’s because it’s shot on gorgeously grainy celluloid. I have no complaints about the DTS-HD MA Stereo track, either, other than it sounding a bit dated. Extras are few, but the interview with Mel Brooks and producers Jonathan Sanger and Randy Auerbach was interesting enough to hold my attention through its fifteen-minute running time. The commentary by author Steve Haberman is very educational, talking about the history of the real Burke and Hare murders, and also about the other films that sprang from the same source material. It’s a great track for history buffs, but be aware that there are frequent extended silences.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars