Doctor and the Devils, The (Blu-ray)
Directed by Freddie Francis
Distributed by The Scream Factory
Horror, by its very nature, is supposed to be disturbing and terrifying. But horror films that are based on truth – and actually get as close to hitting that mark as possible – are perhaps the most chilling of all. Knowing that whatever violent insanity you’re watching actually occurred makes the horror all the more palpable. The Doctor and the Devils (1985) is one such film, though it was a long, fruitless road before this real-life tale of murder and hubris would be filmed. The script was actually written back in the 1940s before going through a seemingly endless developmental hell that ran through numerous permutations of directors & stars before it was finally optioned by Brooksfilms. Yes, once again we have the comedy god among men, Mel Brooks, to thank for a Victorian-era medical picture. His first major venture into producing came with David Lynch’s acclaimed film “The Elephant Man” (1980); and for those who don’t know, Brooks tends to keep his names off these “serious” films he produces (he’d only be recognizable if you knew Brooksfilms was his production company) because otherwise audiences expect something comedic.
The Doctor and the Devils changes the names of the main players, but retains most of celebrated Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ script, which is a retelling of the Burke and Hare murders that took place in Scotland during 1828. Here, the nefarious two are known as Fallon (Jonathan Pryce) and Broom (Stephen Rhea). They’re a couple of street urchin scoundrels; scumbags who would drown their own mothers for a shilling. When they learn that a local doctor and bleeding-edge biologist, Dr. Rock (Timothy Dalton), is paying cash money for recently deceased corpses, the duo decides to get into the grave robbing business with virtually no hesitation. When they deliver their first corpse and are only paid half because it isn’t quite fresh enough, they have equally little hesitation to resort to killing. Can’t get much fresher than doing it yourself, right?
As the corpses begin to arrive a little too frequently, it draws the attention of a number of people, including Dr. Rock’s personal assistant who buys the corpses, his right-hand man, Dr. Murray (Julian Sands), and a professor of biology who repudiates Rock’s hubris, Macklin (Patrick Stewart). But Rock does not care because he sees every fresh body as an opportunity to further the advancements of science in the name of humanity. He’s a utilitarian at heart with a dash of blind libertarianism. He might not be at a loss for bodies, but the town is beginning to be at a loss for population. Fallon & Broom are a little too good at what they do, getting to the point where even Broom – who’s really more of a thief than a murderer – thinks Fallon is enjoying their deadly duty more than he should.
At its core, The Doctor and the Devils is a tale of corrupt morals and questionable ethics. Rock’s quest is commendable – noble even – but he goes about it without considering the irony: in trying to further science and help people, he sits idly by while two buzzards take lives to aid in furthering his research. Rock is brilliant but blind, willfully so. Dalton infuses his role with a fiery passion that makes Dr. Rock’s counterarguments all the more compelling. Of course, the film can’t allow moral culpability to lie fallow, and it takes a shock late in the game for Rock to learn the error of his ways.
There’s no question, however, that Pryce and Rhea steal the film as Fallon and Broom, respectively. In many ways, the two are similar to another duo that inhabited a true-to-life tale of murder, Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). Separately, both men are unfocused and lacking the intestinal fortitude required to kill a person; together, they’re an unquenchable team of madness, more concerned with trinkets and money than the value of life. These are the sort of men who should never be given a taste of power because they immediately become drunk on it… and anything else nearby they can guzzle down. Upon receiving their first pittance of pay for a moldy old corpse, they both blow the entire wad on a night of drinks, sloshing glasses and liberally pouring out a shot or two for any man who raises a glass.
Personally, I love the dichotomy presented here. Both Dr. Rock and the duo of Fallon & Broom are responsible for the taking of life, though one more directly than the other. Still, everyone is operating in a fantasy world; one in which laws can be circumvented if they aren’t liked and nothing – not even a person’s life – can stand in the way of “progress”. For Rock, that’s medically; for Fallon & Broom, it’s their progressive rise above being homeless, aimless drunkards. Thomas’ script, which was re-written to an unknown degree by Ronald Harwood (though Brooks does mention in the supplements he wanted to shoot as much of the original script as possible), is full of wit, shrewd, and posits some interesting quandaries. It’s a shame the film didn’t do well, or gain much of a cult status, because this is horror in its purest form.
A quick nod of respect here to director Freddie Francis. He was a prolific director of many Hammer horror pictures, responsible for nearly a dozen celebrated British classics like Tales from the Crypt (1972), Paranoiac (1963) and The Day of the Triffids (1963, though he was uncredited). His talents succeeded in making this picture feel like a 1980s Hammer production despite coming from a different studio.
Those hoping for a major upgrade from the previous DVD issued by Fox may be disappointed with the 2.35:1 1080p image quality. Rarely is there a scene that impresses. More often than not, the picture is poorly defined and colors look no more vivid than they did on DVD. Even close-up shots fail to reveal much in the way of details, and the wider the shots get the softer they get, too. Grain is present and evident, occasionally getting a bit thick and chunky. Black levels fare the worst, looking hazy and grey more than inky and dark. Shadow delineation is practically non-existent; images are swallowed up whole by the darkness. The fact that many scenes are lit by natural light (such as candles) only exacerbates issues. There’s very little here to crow about from a visual standpoint. A full 4K restoration would probably make this picture pop – especially given that the J-D-C Scope cinematography process is supposed to provide superb depth of focus and razor-sharp detailing. Whatever master was used for this transfer was woefully outdated and it shows.
Though it, too, isn’t exactly impressive at least the English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track gets the job done with no fuss. Dialogue is clean & clear, with no audible deficiencies. Fidelity is relatively strong, with an average but accurate presence. The best moment featuring any sort of range comes when Twiggy sings her solo song. John Morris’ score is pitch perfect; whimsical one moment, sinister the next. Subtitles are included in English.
The audio commentary comes courtesy of author Steve Haberman, who is something of an expert on the Burke & Hare murders as well as aspects of this film. His words come at a measured pace, leaving many gaps of silence. But this is a great, historical track with loads of information regarding the real life murders, this film’s accuracy, and much more. It’s scholarly.
Interview with Executive Producer Mel Brooks and Producers Jonathan Sanger & Randy Auerbach is a featurette in which all three participants sit down together and talk about how this project came together. Anyone who has listened to Brooks speak knows that he’s not only energetic and informative, but the man is still sharp as a knife.
The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.
- Audio commentary with author Steve Haberman
- Interview with executive producer Mel Brooks and producers Jonathan Sanger & Randy Auerbach
- Theatrical trailer