Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees once considered grave robbing as a career, but she doesn't like getting dirt under her fingernails.
Murder was just the beginning.
The dullest movie about grave robbers I've ever seen, The Doctor and the Devils is a waste of both a fine cast and one of English history's most gruesome true crime stories. The heritage for The Doctor and the Devils claimed by the DVD case is "an original screenplay by Dylan Thomas," but its origins lie in the tale of famous 19th-century grave robbers Burke and Hare, who found remunerative work supplying bodies to anatomist Dr. Knox and supplemented their wares by turning from grave robbing to murder. The incident was the basis for Robert Louis Stevenson's eerie short story "The Body Snatcher" and the 1945 Robert Wise film of the same title. I urge you to seek out either of these versions of the tale for a genuinely creepy experience. The Doctor and the Devils is creepy only in the sense that it creeps along at a sluggish pace.
In this version of the story, Dr. Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton, The Rocketeer) is the passionate young doctor of anatomy who announces to his fascinated students that anything is justified in the name of scientific knowledge. Given this philosophy, it isn't surprising that Dr. Rock has established a business arrangement with some shifty locals who will bring him dead bodies with which to teach his classes. (Legally he is permitted to use only the corpses of executed criminals, and there just aren't enough to go around.) Two hard-luck types, Timothy Broom (Stephen Rea, The Crying Game) and Robert Fallon (Jonathan Pryce, Something Wicked This Way Comes), edge in on the business in order to earn money for drink, but from robbing graves it is a very short step to committing murder. Take a wild guess whether one of this duo will get a little too fond of his work.
In the meantime, Dr. Rock's distinguished but hidebound elder colleague Professor Macklin (Patrick Stewart, X-Men) alerts the medical board of Rock's shenanigans, and sinister rumblings of scandal begin to threaten his promising career. In a gratuitous subplot, naive young Dr. Murray (Julian Sands, Warlock) has fallen in love with a blasé prostitute (model-actress Twiggy), so take a second wild guess as to whether she will become a potential victim of our corpse peddlers.
The Doctor and the Devils comes with credentials that led me to expect a much better movie—not just the big names in the cast, but also the established behind-the-scenes talents. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood, who adapted the Dylan Thomas screenplay, counts such films as The Pianist and The Dresser among his accomplishments, but he turns in mediocre work here. Likewise, I expected the film to at least look good due to the direction by Freddie Francis (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, The Creeping Flesh), an Oscar-winning cinematographer. But visually this is an undistinguished experience, drab and claustrophobic, squalid in a depressing rather than a shocking way. Prostitutes, drunkards, and other poverty-stricken folk huddle together in a cramped set meant to represent a Victorian city. No wonder all Broom and Fallon want to do is get drunk; a more appropriate title, in fact, would have been The Doctor and the Drunkards.
My main objection to the film is that it generates no suspense. One culprit is the pacing, which is uneven and drags notably in some sequences. At one point the action stops altogether to allow Twiggy to sing a song, and the buildup to the murder of a hapless old woman drags on for what seems like forever: Instead of heightening our anxiety on her behalf, it merely makes us impatient for someone to kill her already and be done with it.
Like the pacing, the attitude of the story toward its central character, Rock, is inconsistent. The screenplay establishes him at the beginning as ruthlessly amoral, but then it switches gears to portray him as the voice of reason butting his head against stuffy, senseless tradition. Dalton's performance also makes the doctor inscrutable; he keeps us at a distance, refusing to let us get a fix on him. As a result, it's almost impossible to emotionally invest in his fate. Indeed, it's difficult to feel concern for any of the characters, since they are variously corrupt, mad, stupid, or simply underdeveloped, and this disconnect also hinders the suspense.
Fox has provided a flipper disc with both a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a pan-and-scan full-frame one, both reasonably clean and free of glaring defects. Each side contains the film's trailer, the sole extra. The dreary color palette makes it difficult to assess the color reproduction, but the scarlet of fresh spurts of blood comes through boldly, so I would gauge that the color scheme here is as it was meant to be. Audio is free of obvious damage but is unevenly balanced, with music and ambient tavern noise often making dialogue in crowd scenes difficult to comprehend.
Fans of Dalton, Rea, or Pryce may find this worth a rental, and it must be noted that Pryce's final scene is blood-curdling; he definitely goes out with figurative guns a-blazing, as if he were determined to salvage one scene out of this otherwise forgettable movie. Fans of Sands and Stewart, however, will be disappointed in the one-dimensional roles they are given. Horror aficionados will find this a very tame film, far from the hard-R fare that has been released in the two decades since this hit theaters. My advice is to look elsewhere for your Halloween viewing. The Doctor and the Devils is hereby sentenced to burial in an unmarked grave.
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