The Doctor and the Devils (1985)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: November 4th, 2014
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Hammer Films shuttered its doors in the late 70s, but had the stalwart studio lumbered into the 80s, it might have made a film like The Doctor and the Devils. While director Freddie Francis apparently saw it as a departure after churning out horror films for both Hammer and Amicus for over two decades, external forces molded the film into rather standard fare after a notably long production history. Originating years earlier with a script from poet Dylan Thomas (who retains a credit here despite having been dead for three decades), The Doctor and the Devils took a winding path to the screen after passing through several hands; it actually landed in Francis’s lap years before it was eventually made with Mel Brooks producing what would eventually be a rather interesting film (especially given the genre’s environment in 1985), if not one that struggles to lurch to life at times.
Based on the real-life exploits of Burke and Hare, The Doctor and the Devils is preoccupied with death in the most clinical sense: in the 19th century, Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton, playing an obvious analogue for the historical Robert Knox) obsesses over his duties as an anatomy professor in puritanical Edinburgh, a job that has him constantly procuring cadavers. Legally, he can only experiment on bodies supplied by the hangman, which creates quota issues; out of desperation, Knox turns to a black market teeming with prostitutes, murderers, and grave robbers. A couple of particularly scurvy knaves named Fallon and Bloom (Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea) seize the opportunity and begin supplying Knox with remarkably fresh corpses of their most recent victims—very much to the doctor’s knowledge.
I suppose that’s sort of the problem with The Doctor and the Devils: it’s dramatically inert because it’s not at all coy about its various characters’ exploits. From the moment Rock enters his lecture room, Dalton plays him as an irascible genius who literally announces that the ends will justify whatever means he resorts to in the pursuit of science. He’s basically Victor Frankenstein had Shelley’s mad scientist been content to just be tenured—his aims are actually quite vague, even though the film’s script supplies him with ample opportunity to lecture those around him (including Patrick Stewart, who plays a stuffy rival professor) about the perils of adhering to tradition and superstition (it’s believed that these defiled corpses will not be allowed to enter heaven) rather than trying to progress for the benefit of mankind.
Most of these interactions feel like they’ve been dutifully wheeled out from similar stories. Everyone is quite aghast at the situation, particularly Knox’s assistant (a kind of stiff Julian Sands), and viewers are mostly left waiting for the other shoe—or guillotine—to drop and wreck everyone’s life. It has a roundabout way of arriving at that point, as one of the subplots finds Sands falling in love with a prostitute (Twiggy) who eventually finds herself in the thick of these lurid proceedings. By observing such a wide assortment of characters, The Doctor and the Devils captures an intriguing class struggle, with the supposed dregs of society driven to such sordid lengths at the behest of a system encouraged by the upper crust, making it a somewhat pointed critique of conditions that breed such economic desperation.
Its ending captures an especially disturbing portrait of a society given over to complete conservatism: its villains may be vanquished, but they become the stuff of ghastly legend, a sort of campfire tale whispered by children to keep superstition alive after all. In his quest to eliminate such fantasies, Dr. Rock becomes one, an irony that is not lost on him, as the film goes so far as to have him articulate this in the closing moments. This sense of dark irony is a great asset, though it’s somewhat squandered by a scattershot focus—this is a film that’s much more attentive to its devils instead of its doctor, who becomes more of an avatar for irony and hypocrisy rather than an actual character. As such, it becomes something of a twisted morality play with grisly murders and a slowly developing procedural—the stuff of many Hammer films, of course, so one has to wonder how satisfied Francis could have been retreating to such familiar territory.
Granted, the film is handsomely produced, and was certainly an anomaly in the mid-80s. Obviously, few films were being produced like The Doctor and the Devils at this point, both thematically and stylistically. If not for the cast, one could mistake it for a film produced a decade earlier: Francis’s signature visual flair is on display throughout, particularly in his realization of a sepia-stained Edinburgh, and the film is a well-mounted, convincing period piece. The grimy slums are thick with sleaze and bawdiness in a way that even later Hammer productions merely hinted at, yet it’s just restrained enough to feel somewhat classy—again, I have to imagine this is more or less what a Hammer film might have been like in the 80s, right down to its ridiculously impressive cast.
That is both a boon and a bit of a curse; for a film preoccupied with pitting superstition and progress against each other, The Doctor and the Devils somewhat appropriately finds itself in a nebulous zone—it’s neither classic nor contemporary, sort of anachronistic yet not really (there is a sense that it’s at least attempting to keep up with its junkier contemporaries, what with all the gory corpses and nudity). It condemns its characters’ follies but revels in them all the same and is eventually content to be a well-dressed but tawdry gothic drama that dryly redelivers familiar material. If only it were as consistently evocative as its bookending segments, which find Rock wandering the desolate countryside, shaded by both his thoughts and John Morris's melancholy score. During these brief moments, the film flirts with a gothic sublimity it never quite commits to.
Despite its noteworthy pedigree, The Doctor and the Devils has been rendered obscure on home video in recent years, at least in North America, where it’s never even been released on DVD. Thanks to Scream Factory, it’s skipping right to Blu-ray with a nice release. Though not designated as part of the label’s Collectors Series, the disc sports a fine, vivid transfer with adequate detail and a vibrant color palette. A DTS-MA 2.0 track faithfully relays the original stereo elements rather well—it’s not the liveliest of tracks, but The Doctor and the Devils doesn’t present the liveliest of soundscapes. For extras, Scream has provided a commentary with author Steve Haberman, the film’s trailer, plus fifteen minutes of interviews with Brooks, plus producers Jonathan Sanger and Randy Auerbach.
The disturbing exploits of Burke and Hare have been done better justice elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean The Doctor and the Devils isn’t without some merit—after all, it is an especially well-produced take, and it’s almost hard to believe that anyone was willing to commit to making a pseudo-prestige picture out of such material. In this respect, Brooks’s contributions are underappreciated: between this, The Elephant Man, and The Fly, he clearly harbored some brief genre ambitions that resulted in some fine films. The Doctor and the Devils might be the weakest of this trio, but it’s a worthwhile oddity, a sort of retroactive bit of counterprogramming for the decade it was released in. comments powered by Disqus Ratings:
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