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The Doctor and the Devils

English Lit majors and anyone playing "Six Degrees of Jonathan Pryce" may find occasional interest in this appropriately sordid but ultimately tedious treatment of Dylan Thomas' long-unproduced film script. As for everyone else, well, when Timothy Dalton's bloody-smocked 19th-century physician insists that the corpses he studies need to be fresher, it's a request that viewers might wish on the film itself. The Doctor and the Devils, a 1985 horror-drama, is based on the first of Thomas' published screenplays, which appeared shortly before the poet's death in 1953. It dramatizes the notorious West Port Murders by Burke and Hare, body-snatchers who in 1827-28 sold the corpses of their 16 victims to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection. Their primary customer was Edinburgh doctor Robert Knox. It's a bit of ghoulish history with a long popular-culture impact in Great Britain. Parents threaten unruly children with visits from Burke and Hare, who the tykes invoke in sing-song rhymes for jump-rope and hopscotch games. Like the Sweeney Todd story, it's material ripe for reinvention as macabre entertainment. It's been the grist for several films, most notably the Robert Wise/Val Lewton creeper The Body Snatcher (1945) with Boris Karloff, and The Flesh and the Fiends (1959), one of the Brit-horror greats starring Peter Cushing as Knox.

Dylan Thomas' interpretation spoons in some still-chewable themes: the responsibilities of science, the relationship between science and religion, the class chasm between the power elite and society at large, conservative vs. progressive values, and the double-standards that treat the poor as disposable commodities for the privileged. All that plus murders, Victorian squalor, and a pretty prostitute. Sounds like a great mixture, right? Could be, with a different cast and especially a different director. But when it finally got produced, 20 years too late, The Doctor and the Devils arrived bloated, lifeless, and toe-tagged. D.O.A.

Here Burke and Hare are Fallon (Pryce) and Broom (Stephen Rea). Knox has become Dr. Thomas Rock (Dalton). Rock is a gifted surgeon, respected professor, and (at first) a good man at odds with the moral and legal strictures that regard an anatomist as one step to the right of a pornographer. Because he must limit his studies to hangman's corpses, often days gone to rot, it's the maggots, he says, who have the better opportunity to further knowledge of human anatomy. (When Dalton's passionate idealist rails against the "pompous idiots who care more about morality than medicine," the film strikes a note that will probably always be topical.) Lowlife thugs Fallon and Broom hear that the good doctor pays cash money for cadavers, the fresher the better. So they embark on a little free enterprise of their own devising — a few grave-robbings, the doctor gets his necessary specimens, the drunken duo get their coins, and no questions asked. But when their entrepreneurial spirit moves to murdering destitute inhabitants of the city's filthy slums, the doctor's "don't ask, don't tell" policy is challenged by his assistant, Dr. Murray (Julian Sands). On the side, Murray has fallen for a prostitute (Twiggy), and the climax sees Murray heroically racing to save the girl from ending up as one of Burke's deliveries. Meanwhile, a snoopy rival colleague (Patrick Stewart) alerts Rock's superiors that something smells funny in the doctor's dissection lecture hall.

Without Dylan Thomas' text at hand, it's impossible to know how much "based on" means fidelity to the writer's original vision. In any case, the filmmaking does not go gently into this fusty, trite screenplay that, for all its dark doings, delivers no shocks or surprises. The Doctor and the Devils is directed tonelessly by Freddie Francis. A celebrated British cinematographer (The Innocents, The Elephant Man, The Straight Story), in the 1960s Francis also directed horror films for Hammer, England's florid fright factory. Returning to directing after ten years, his heart isn't in The Doctor and the Devils. He shows no directorial presence, no distinguishing gifts or personality as a storyteller and filmmaker. Like The Elephant Man, this title was produced by Mel Brooks, who likely hoped to recapture the successful licorice-twist of humanism and expression that distinguished David Lynch's previous goth-Victorian chronicle. Instead, by wedding the stagy (and by now retro) Hammer-style horrifics with big-budget production values, Francis does service to neither.

He's not helped by a cast that seems to have wandered lost and uncertain into the (effectively realized) spewing stews of inner-city Edinburgh. Brit-com veteran Beryl Reid, as a boozy old mum done in with grisly ineptitude, is the sole standout. The soon-to-be James Bond, Dalton is too handsome and flat a mouthpiece for his character's windy sententiousness. (Granted, Dalton's lines force him to use subtext the way Burke uses a pillow on a hapless victim.) It's good to see Twiggy, older now, as the sympathetic streetwalker, though something's wrong when Twiggy — Twiggy — looks too healthy for her role. Amid the up-market Hammer gloom on the obviously studio-bound sets, she's too clean, too well-flossed, too pretty to be real. So are Dalton, Sands, and even Pryce, who doesn't inhabit the role so much as parade it. Altogether they look like a Royal Shakespeare Company roadshow production of a story Dickens churned out during an especially melancholic weekend.

*          *          *

Fox's DVD edition of The Doctor and the Devils offers a nearly flawless print and anamorphic transfer in this CinemaScope picture's original 2.35:1 ratio. (A pan-and-scan version sits on the other side of this flipper disc; the tiny text differentiating the two sides makes a magnifying lens a handy home-theater accessory.) The abundant blacks in this dark-toned film are deep and solid without being inky, and the colors are vivid. Scenes in Rock's home and elsewhere are aggressively warm in their almost citrussy, sepia-like hues, though we presume that's intentional. What's slated as Dolby Surround audio comes through instead as very good DD 2.0 stereo with a dynamic front spread.

The spare extras are merely the film's trailer (in anamorphic widescreen and worse for wear) and trailers for other Fox cross-sell titles. Continuing a loathsome Fox routine lately, the disc front-loads the studio's ear-bleedingly loud and personally assaultive nanny-ad against video piracy. Word on the street is that with some machines you can't even chapter-skip past it. By barking at us like teenagers in a police lineup, it's more likely to provoke additional piracy than to stop it.

—Mark Bourne

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