The Doctor and the Devils sports an impressive, revealingly circular narrative structure. The film concerns Dr. Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton), an anatomist struggling to expand the boundaries of his discipline in 19th-century Edinburgh, which, like the rest of the United Kingdom at the time, had laws in place forbidding the dissection of dead bodies unless they belonged to convicted criminals. As medical science flourishes, supply of these bodies dwindle, and so Rock often procures corpses from body snatchers, paying them a fee that represents a handsome relief from routines marked by homelessness, unemployment, or hard and barely paid drudgery. The fresher the bodies, the more money they fetch, as they’re closer to a state that can simulate active operation on a living human being. Into this fray come Robert Fallon (Jonathan Pryce) and Timothy Broom (Stephen Rea), two broke ruffians who soon think little of killing derelicts so as to provide Rock the freshest and most profitable bodies on the market.
The Doctor and the Devils is obviously based on the notorious and legendary case of Burke and Hare, which has inspired a vast number of other horror movies, plays, and novels. Unlike other filmmakers, director Freddie Francis is barely interested in the tale’s Grand Guignol implications, but rather how hypocrisy breeds a desperate bid for survival that renders the initial hypocrisy ironically prescient. Like most black markets, the body business is spurred by a prohibition that’s egotistically tethered to puritanical control, which is sold to the public as “decency.” Autopsies are largely verboten, despite the medical knowledge they indisputably yield, because they conflict with religious practices, which is to say that religion fosters more death (both from murders, and from operations that might’ve been informed by greater, life-saving medical context) so as to preserve an illusory sanctity for those already dead. To circumvent this prudishness, Rock resorts to practices that ultimately turn him into the exploiter that the prudes already purported him to be.
Two prostitutes, Jennie (Twiggy) and Alice (Nicola McAuliffe), serve as our guides through this circular structure, as they navigate, through their trade, the various classes of Edinburgh, from the high society of the doctors to the skid row known by Fallon and Broom to everything in between. Jennie and Alice directly witness how unreasonably classist illegalities breed severe crimes, perpetrated by high and low classes alike, which are eventually cleansed through low-class executions that are correctly understood to resemble pagan offerings that keep society thrumming with their illusions of social containment. A poignant moment between Alice and Rock, in which the former thanks the latter for saving her brother (in a difficult operation made possible by Rock’s illegal research), paves the way for a climactic scene in which Rock is to realize that all his platitudes about saving the lower class have come to mask a spiteful egotism that’s effectively detached him from humanity.
The human moments stick out because the film is otherwise chilly and anthropological to the point of wanting for urgency. (The recent and similarly themed early 20th-century medical series The Knick has a vastly greater sense of emotional variety.) Repetition sets in once the alternating narrative pattern between the respective social classes takes shape; there isn’t much left to discover as we grimly trod through the awfulness toward the inevitable fallout. The film is as beautiful as you’d expected from the celebrated Francis, particularly the Victorian reds that often appear to embody the characters’ suppressed passions, but its clammy outrage grows wearying. The Doctor and the Devils shares Rock’s problem: decrying the state of humanity while displaying precious little of its own.
One of Shout! Factory’s best transfers, particularly in regard to the image. There’s softness occasionally in the background, but the various shades of the film’s rich brown color scheme are well-differentiated, vibrant and largely remarkably pristine. Flesh tones have strong, specific texture (that’s purposefully stylized by the filmmakers), and the reds and greens are lush and gorgeous. The English 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is similarly robust, especially in the many town sequences that rely upon a great variety of subtle diegetic noises.
The new interview with executive producer Mel Brooks, producer Jonathan Sanger, and Randy Auerbach is lively and surprisingly explicit in expressing Brooks’s disappointment with his fans, who expect only comedies from him and greet his name as producer on projects like The Elephant Man, The Doctor and the Devils, or The Fly with bafflement or disappointment. Brooks and Sanger discuss the original Dylan Thomas script, how it was modified by Ronald Harwood, as well as the careful recruitment of the legendary cinematographer Freddie Francis to direct. The only problem with this interview is its inadvertent upstaging of the audio commentary by author Steve Haberman. Haberman covers the Burke and Hare story, Dylan Thomas, and their vast cultural influences with an informative grasp of detail, but it’s overly rehearsed and prone to long silences that halt momentum. (A Brooks commentary would’ve been welcome, and probably wonderful.) The theatrical trailer rounds out this promising but underdeveloped package.
This fascinating, ironic, dry telling of the legendary Burke and Hare story receives one of Shout! Factory’s very best transfers.