The figures of Burke and Hare loom surprisingly large in the collective conscious for a pair of murderous con men from a foreign country who died nearly two hundred years ago. There have been at least half a dozen film versions, ranging in tone from Val Lewton’s gothic freakshow The Body Snatcher, to John Landis’s underrated, blackly comedic slap stick version Burke & Hare. There’s just something about the story, the cruelty and mercenary nature of the crimes themselves, the complicity of the upper classes, their link to the birth of the modern age (for all the talk about Jack The Ripper being the father of modernity, Burke And Hare were certainly its midwives) it’s like a perfect, infernal Venn Diagram. No matter what take you choose on the material you’re bound to end up with a rich one.
The Doctor And The Devils certainly has one of the more unique origins in the Burke and Hare canon. Based on an unproduced screenplay by Dylan Thomas, produced by Mel Brooks (ah your typical Dylan Thomas/Mel Brooks collaboration) and directed by Freddie Francis who directed some of the best Amicus horror anthology films, such Hammer classics as Dracula Has Risen From The Grave And Can’t Get Back Into His House and lest we forget, the immortal Trog. Add to that a cast that includes such dependable figures as Jonathan Pryce, Timothy Dalton and Stephen Rea (and also Patrick Stewart and Twiggy) in their primes and one can’t help but wonder why The Doctor And The Devils doesn’t have a healthier cult following.
Perhaps it’s because that the story of Burke And Hare invites a more over the top and grotesque approach. The Body Snatcher was dominated by the ghoulish performance of Karloff at its center (and featured, for the last time, his sharing screen space with Bela Lugosi). Landis’s film was an out an out comedy. Even less famous version’s like the Donald Pleasence, Peter Cushing version The Flesh And The Fiends featured a memorably pop eyed turn from Pleasence. Francis, perhaps attempting a late career transition away from horror, takes a different approach. The Doctor and The Devils is a handsomely mounted film that pays as much attention to its production values as its characters. It’s as much a historical drama as a horror film and as a result its tone, though suitably gothic, is much less heightened. Pryce’s Burke isn’t a bug eyed, cackling monster as much as he is a terribly confident pragmatist (and it wasn’t as though he couldn’t reach the gothic notes see Something Wicked This Way Comes). The approach doesn’t quite work, but it’s an interesting one none the less, The Doctor And The Devils might never be a classic, but it certainly deserves better than the semi obscurity that it had fallen into.
On that note SHOUT!’s SCREAM! line does its usual superlative job on the Blu Ray. The transfer is clean and the supplements- which include a commentary by historian Steve Haberman an interview with an obviously proud Brooks among others, are of their usual quality. Ultimately the value of a DVD distributor isn’t how it handles itself with a stone cold classic, but whether it can use their trust to bring worthy films to attention. On that level The Doctor And The Devils is an unqualified success.
Falls short of an undiscovered classic but an interesting film all the same.