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Director: Freddie Francis
Writer: Ronald Harwood, Dylan Thomas
Cast: Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Rea, and Twiggy
Length: 93 min
Label: Scream Factory
Release Date: November 4, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
- Audio Commentary with Author and Screenwriter Steve Haberman
- Interview Featurette with Executive Producer Mel Brooks and Producers Jonathan Sanger and Randy Auerbach
In light of our forthcoming issues, Medical Horror, The Doctor and the Devils release could not have come at a better time. The 1985 film directed by Freddie Francis takes heed with issues surrounding ethics in early 19th century medical practices. Based on a true story of the grave robbers Burke and Hare and Dr. Robert Knox—although the film does seem to suggest a far greater significance to the doctor’s discoveries than seem factually true—, the movie tackles the issue between advancing scientific and medical knowledge with the institutionalized restriction of supplying surgeons with ‘fresh’ bodies for research. The script, written by Dylan Thomas and originally published in 1953—fun fact, the film was initially intended to be produced by Nicholas Ray, which would have made for an extremely interesting film—was almost abandoned when EP Mel Brooks felt that it would perform better as a strict genre fare. However, Francis refused to allow this to happen and made sure that Thomas’ vision was honored in Ronald Harwood’s adapted script. Perhaps Brooks’s insight was right, the film opened to a meager 140k in Box Office revenue and has been a largely overlooked title, despite being Francis’s last theatrically released film.
The Doctor and the Devils offers somewhat of a conundrum. On paper, it sounds like a sure-fire winner. A gothic-horror; based on the true-to-life events of grave robbers turned murderers Burke and Hare, who supplied fresh bodies for scientific research; based on a script by Dylan Thomas; executive producer by Mel Brooks; and finally—to solidify its place in a rich gothic-cinema tradition—directed by Hammer Horror veteran Freddie Francis (The Evil of Frankenstein and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave). Yes, on paper this sounds like a no brainer. However, the result is not exactly what you may expect. A rather uneven balance between the Hammer-Gothic tradition and a period piece drama, The Doctor and the Devils may oscillate a little too strongly between the poles.
The film does maintain a distinct narrative style that is probably a result of Thomas’s script being carried over. Further, while screenwriter Ronald Harwood neither had much experience working in the horror genre, nor had he acquired much of a name at the time, it is interesting to note that he would later find his place writing poignant dramas like Roman Polanski’s The Pianist and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. While not as prolific as the aforementioned titles, The Doctor and the Devils is certainly closer to that wheelhouse than conventional horror. Despite Francis’s time working with Hammer, the film doesn’t adhere much to that form of stylization. There are fragments—notably in the construction of sets and the color palette of the film—but beyond these brief glimpses, the film falls more in line with other period pieces of its time. With that said, it is still a pleasingly constructed film.Unfortunately, due to Scream Factory’s notoriety, the title may fail to engage with a large body of their fans due to unmet expectations. If you are reading this, it is best to go into the title expecting something more along the lines of drama than horror. While it is not a terrible stretch to consider the film under horror, the strengths of the film lie in the performances, particularly that of Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea as the grave robbers and Timothy Dalton as the aristocratic Doctor Rock. In this regard, The Doctor and the Devils is both funny and disturbing, meshing the robber’s selfish disregard for human life with the Doctor’s almost tyrannical need to advance scientific procedures. It treads a fine line between the glorification and critique of unethical medical procedures, but it is safe to say that it takes principle interest in dismantling the intrusion of religious and bourgeois concerns with state needs, and it is this criticism that is most effectively carried out throughout the film. Overall, my biggest complaint with the film is that because of the artificial looking sets and the whimsical dialogue that the film can, at times, feel like a filmed play.
The 1.78:1 1080p HD transfer for The Doctors and the Devils if anything embodies the ‘less is more’ ethos. Far from being one of the catalog’s most impressive transfers, there is still a clear and appreciated avoidance of digital enhancement of the picture. This leaves an image that is at times dark, and other times a tad thin on contrast. With that said, overall colors are faithful and there is finely intact film grain. Certainly a fine attention and respect for the original filmic elements.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 audio track faithfully projects the film’s aural components, but—perhaps at the mercy of the original elements—the film’s track does become a bit muddied. The film is, at times, a cascading hodgepodge of aural elements, with numerous voices competing for screen dominance, as well as, a wealth of ambient street noises. This can make the rather thick accents of a few of the leading roles a bit hard to decipher. Overall, the mix is adequate and faithfully presented by Scream Factory offers more pros than cons.
If you have been following so far, you probably wouldn’t expect much in terms of extras on this release—and you’d be right. However, I can’t say that I blame Scream Factory, and to their credit they do offer two great pieces. The first is an audio commentary by Steve Haberman, who you may recognize from either his as a screenwriter (Dracula: Dead and Loving It) or from his commentary tracks on some of the Vincent Price films from the past two Scream Factory collections. The second featurette consists of interviews with Executive Producer Mel Brooks and Producers Jonathan Sanger and Randy Auerbach, that goes in-depth into the behind-the-scenes story of the film.
With such an impressive year for releases, The Doctor and the Devils is far from Scream Factory’s best release, but hopefully it won’t get lost in the mix. This is, understandingly so, a modest release, so the meager features and ordinary transfer is to be expected. There is nothing out of place and Scream Factory demonstrates a great respect for a title that has historically not been treated as such. It doesn’t carry with it the cult-cache of something like Nightbreed or even Squirm, but it is a fine film, certainly one fans of Gothic British Horror will appreciate.