The Doctor and the Devils Blu-ray Review
Directed by Freddie Francis
Written by Dylan Thomas & Ronald Harwood
1985, Region A, 92 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on November 4th, 2014
Timothy Dalton as Doctor Thomas Rock
Jonathan Pryce as Robert Fallon
Stephen Rea as Timothy Broom
Twiggy as Jennie Bailey
Patrick Stewart as Prof. Macklin
Julian Sands as Dr. Murray
Phyllis Logan as Elizabeth Rock
The Doctor and the Devils is an interesting look at the crossroads of medical science and religion in the 1800s. Dr. Thomas Rock is an anatomist at the University of Edinburgh, but unlike many of his colleagues he is unsatisfied with the legal restriction that his cadavers be limited to those provided courtesy of the hangman. In search of fresh specimens, he is willing to pay a fair price without asking too many questions. This policy draws the attention of opportunistic grave robbers Fallon and Broom. Rock's assistant, Dr. Murray, is uncomfortable with the arrangement, as the bodies that begin arriving are considerably fresher than what they are used to receiving.
Fallon and Broom grow more confident in their skills at obtaining fresh merchandise, largely due to their change in operation as they shift from grave robbing to murder. Rock refuses to inquire further, even when faced with the obvious, all in the name of advancing medical science. He becomes the target of suspicion by the board of medical advisers at the university, but arrogantly refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing. Rock's willingness to pay for their services sends Fallon and Broom into a killing frenzy that escalates as they grow more unbalanced.
Famed Welsh playwright Dylan Thomas (Under Milk Wood) adapted the story of the notorious Burke and Hare crimes, committed for Doctor Robert Knox in early 1820s Scotland, into an original screenplay titled The Doctor and the Devils. The material was eventually turned into the film of the same name and produced by Mel Brooks, under his Brooksfilms company reserved for serious work (The Elephant Man, Frances, The Fly). Legendary cinematographer Freddie Francis (Tales from the Crypt) was brought in to direct the picture and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Browning Version) was hired to punch up the script. The end result is a thoughtful look at a dark period in Scottish history.
The cast is an interesting ensemble led by Timothy Dalton (Hot Fuzz) as Dr. Rock, Jonathan Pryce (Something Wicked This Way Comes) as Fallon and Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) as Broom, each of whom give powerhouse performances. Supporting turns from Julian Sands (Gothic) and Patrick Stewart (Lifeforce) as Dr. Murray and Prof. Macklin, respectively, ground the story in reality as outsiders who are not caught up in either greed or glory. Just about everyone in the principal cast has gone on to enjoy a lengthy career and it is interesting to see their early work here. Singer/model Twiggy (The Blues Brothers) does a fine job as Jennie Bailey, the prostitute who has attracted the attention of both Fallon and Dr. Murray.
The Doctor and the Devils is a grim story that features the gallows humor of the legendary Grand Guignol theatre productions and serves as a cautionary tale. The most unsettling aspect of the story is that it was inspired by the actual crimes of Burke and Hare, who reportedly murdered sixteen people for the good doctor. In an interesting spin, the film simply tells the relevant story and when it comes to the end, it stops. There is no punishment for Dr. Rock, no follow-up text discussing what happened to the rest of the people involved, just a haunting finale that will leave audiences talking. It is nice to see a mature take on the subject matter that in lesser hands could be easily reduced to a stalk-and-slash B-picture.
Video and Audio:
The Doctor and the Devils is presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is a step up from the earlier DVD release in terms of picture quality. The earthy color scheme is effectively grimy and flesh tones appear natural throughout.
The DTS-HD 2.0 track nicely balances dialogue and music cues, with each remaining clear and free from distortion.
English subtitles are provided for anyone in need.
The audio commentary with Steve Haberman is a straightforward piece in which he informs viewers of the historical facts of the original crimes as well as sharing stories of how the film came into production. There are a few awkward silences, and Haberman is clearly reading his comments, but neither aspect make the track any less interesting.
The real coup here is an interview segment featuring Executive Producer Mel Brooks, joined in conversation with fellow producers Jonathan Sanger and Randy Auerbach as they reflect on the origins of the project and how they got the film made. Brooks is as entertaining as ever, and it is nice to see his serious side as a producer discussing the process of making a genre picture.
The original trailer rounds out the special features on this disc.