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The Flesh and the Fiends FilmPoster

The Flesh and the Fiends (US title Mania) is a 1960 British horror film directed by John Gilling. It stars Peter Cushing as 19th-century medical doctor Robert Knox, who purchases human corpses for research from a murderous pair named Burke and Hare (George Rose and Donald Pleasence). The film is based on the true case of Burke and Hare, who murdered at least 16 people in 1828 Edinburgh, Scotland and sold their bodies for anatomical research.


In 1828 Edinburgh, Scotland, Dr. Knox (Peter Cushing) is a highly skilled anatomist who draws large crowds of medical students to his lectures on the human body. Though he is constantly at odds with his stuffy, backwards colleagues, he is highly venerated by his students and believes his duty is to push the medical profession forward. Unfortunately, due to the laws of the time very few cadavers are legally available to the medical profession, necessitating the use of graverobbers or "Resurrection men" to procure additional specimens. Dr. Knox's assistant Dr. Mitchell (Dermot Walsh) and a young student named Jackson (John Cairney) are given the task of buying the bodies, which are worth a small fortune... especially when fresh.

Meanwhile, drunken miscreants William Burke (George Rose) and William Hare (Donald Pleasence) discover that a lodger at Burke's boarding house has died still owing £4 in rent. When they find that the body can make them a handsome profit, they begin a career of murdering locals and selling them to the medical school. When Jackson goes to a local tavern to give Burke and Hare their pay, he becomes involved with tempestuous local prostitute Mary Patterson (Billie Whitelaw), who is also well known to the killers.

Over time, Jackson and Mitchell begin to suspect that the bodies supplied by Burke and Hare are victims of foul play. Despite their concerns, Dr. Knox dismisses any attempt at going to the police. When Jackson's new girlfriend Mary becomes their latest victim, Jackson discovers her body in the lecture room and he too is killed when he confronts the murderous duo. When they murder a well-known mentally ill youth (Melvyn Hayes), however, they quickly become murder suspects and are caught by an angry mob. Hare agrees to turn King's Evidence against his former partner and is set free, though vindictive locals catch him and burn out his eyes. Burke is executed by hanging, still complaining that Dr. Knox never paid him for the final body.

Knox, for his part in the killings, is the object of widespread public outrage, but ultimately not punished or censured by his colleagues (to whom Dr. Mitchell eloquently defends him). Though he is free to continue lecturing, he ultimately feels guilt over his part in the horrors, admitting to his devoted niece Martha (June Laverick) that the murder victims "seemed so small in my scheme of things. But I knew how they died." The film ends with Knox, who assumes his lectures will now be empty, instead finding himself greeted with applause from a packed hall of students. Apparently a changed man, he begins his lecture with the Hippocratic Oath which includes the promise to "never do harm to anyone."