The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) Director/co-writer John Gilling’s lurid dramatization of Burke and Hare’s real-life exploits is consistently compelling, remaining one of the best versions of the tale. George Rose and Donald Pleasence play the notorious pair of ne'er-do-wells who supply Dr. Robert Knox (Peter Cushing) with a supply of cadavers for his anatomy class. In order to meet demand (and line their pockets), they resort to more unsavory methods to procure the bodies. Cushing is at his icy best, as an amoral physician who believes the shadowy means justify the ends. The filmmakers do a nice job depicting the grimy streets of early 19th century Edinburgh, and balancing the sordid details with the ethical issues. At its heart, the film examines the value of life versus the value of medical breakthroughs. It also raises the age-old concern about class versus conscience, and how money and influence can sway judgment.
Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981) The highlight of this better-than-average psychological thriller is Susan Tyrrell’s off-the-rails performance as an aunt who takes enmeshment to the extreme. Billy (Jimmy McNichol), a 17-year-old high school student, dreams of getting a basketball scholarship, and going off to school in Colorado. It’s too bad his clinging aunt Cheryl (Tyrrell) has other ideas. After she kills a handyman in “self-defense,” Billy becomes prime suspect for the murder, and hounded by a hateful, homophobic police detective (Bo Svenson). The bodies pile up in a spectacularly bloody climax that has to be seen to be believed. It’s a head-scratcher in the best way (Fun Fact: Watch for Bill Paxton as a 26-year-old high school student).
Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray (all-region import), DVD (out of print) and Shudder
Santo and Blue Demon Against the Monsters (Santo y Blue Demon Contra los Monstruos) (1969) Santo and Blue Demon may be rivals on the wrestling mat, but outside the ring, they’re an unstoppable crimefighting duo. They might have just met their match when a mad doctor brings his own army, including Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, a trio of vampires, and a bunch of henchmen (with blotchy green face paint). Friends become foes when the twisted genius creates an evil duplicate Blue Demon, for the sole purpose of destroying El Santo. Sure, it’s unabashedly silly and predictable, but who cares when it’s so much giddy fun? Was there ever a doubt that Santo and Blue Demon would prevail? Watch and enjoy.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD
The Wagons Roll at Night (1941) Humphrey Bogart stars as Nick Coster, a hard-nosed owner of a traveling circus/carnival who believes that business and family doesn’t mix. He reaches the end of his rope when his little sister Mary (played by Joan Leslie, who was 16 at the time) falls for earnest young lion tamer Matt Varney (Eddie Albert). At times, The Wagons Roll at Night seems like two different movies, ultimately preferring to focus on a love triangle between Mary, Matt and Nick’s fortune-telling girlfriend Flo (Sylvia Sidney). The mix never quite satisfies, falling short of the gritty depiction of circus life that it wants to be. Albert’s character is too bland, and Bogart does his best with an underwritten, role. It’s a near miss, worth seeing once, if only to ponder what could have been.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD