The subject of the Burke and Hare murders even attracted, of all people, the poet Dylan Thomas who published a screenplay adaptation in 1953. It wasn't until 1985 it was actually turned into a film, The Doctor and the Devils
, though Thomas' screenplay was given a new polish by Sir Ronald Harwood. Directed by Freddie Francis and produced by Mel Brooks, the film has some truly stunning production design but lacks the courage of The Flesh and the Fiends
, unfortunately modifying Thomas' screenplay in the hopes of attracting a wider audience.
Timothy Dalton plays what is likely the most dashing incarnation of Robert Knox, here renamed Thomas Rock. The action's also moved from Edinburgh to what is apparently London for some reason, most of the characters have been made English. Burke and Hare, renamed Broom and Fallon, are still Irish though you wouldn't know it from the accent put on by Jonathan Pryce, who plays Fallon.
Otherwise such a fine actor, I don't think I've ever heard such a colossal failure to achieve an accent. He sounds Russian. He sounds even worse when contrasted with Broom, played by Stephen Rea, who of course sounds perfect.
That's Julian Sands as the romantic lead, basically the same character as the student in Flesh and the Fiends
, both men have difficulty adjusting to their love for the prostitute, played by Twiggy in The Doctor and the Devils
and renamed Jennie.
Twiggy doesn't seem nearly as hardened by life as Billie Whitelaw's version of the character and her reluctance to have a relationship with Sands' character comes from less clear motives. The movie splits the prostitute into two characters, giving Jennie a best friend named Alice (Nichola McAuliffe) who has a nice scene with Dalton where she thanks him for saving her brother's leg. This is a subplot resembling one from The Body Snatcher
and is nice because it shows the Knox character actually putting his study to use in helping people rather than arguing on less tangible philosophical grounds.
The primary reason for the splitting of the characters is so one of them doesn't have to die. This results in a very lame, Hollywood climactic fight scene between Sands and Pryce that makes absolutely no sense.
Patrick Stewart, who himself played Knox for a BBC radio play a few years prior, is in the movie as one of the medical board in conflict with Dalton's character. The two have a very nice scene where they both present arguments over a pair of human kidneys in a jar.
The score by John Morris is nice but the best thing about the movie is by far production design. The dirty London streets are marvellously detailed with vegetable and egg stalls, colourful extras playing beggars, tinkers, prostitutes, and etcetera.