The Film: 3/5
Dr. Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton), a renowned surgeon in 19th century Edinburgh, is forced by law to rely only on the corpses of recently executed criminals as subjects for his anatomical studies. In order to circumvent the law he hires grave robbers to supply him with fresh bodies for his research, but the best they can provide are already decayed too much for Rock to use. Thieving crooks Robert Fallon (Jonathan Pryce) and Timothy Broom (Stephen Rea) see what the doctor's usual corpse connections are getting paid for their services and decide to get in on the action by bringing Rock some of the freshest bodies he has seen yet. The only problem with this scenario is that Fallon and Broom aren't waiting until these people keel over dead since Rock pays better for stiffs that haven't gotten too stiff, so they help the poor souls to their final reward by way of gallons of cheap hooch and a dirty pillow over the face. Rock's assistant Dr. Murray (Julian Sands) gets wind of their murderous activities and brings it to his employer's attention, but Rock doesn't seem to care where the bodies come from as long as he can use to advance medical science. As the bodies continue to pile up and Rock's colleagues, his wife Elizabeth (Phyllis Logan), his devoutly religious sister Annabella (Siân Phillips), and the law start to take notice Rock slowly begins to realize that he can no longer turn a blind eye when Fallon and Broom grow even desperate in their efforts to stay in money and liquor.
Adapted from an unproduced screenplay written in the 1950's by the celebrated poet Dylan Thomas that was based in part on the Burke and Hare murders in 19th century Scotland, the Mel Brooks production The Doctor and the Devils comes to Blu-ray nearly a decade after making its DVD debut. The late-autumn 1985 release from 20th Century Fox was the final theatrical film directed by Freddie Francis, an underrated purveyor of classy British horror features who also worked as a cinematographer for filmmakers like David Lynch, Karel Reisz, and Martin Scorsese. Despite a solid cast, lurid subject matter, and handsome direction from Francis, Doctor went belly up at the box office with a theatrical release that attracted zero attention from audiences and the media. Home video has served this crafty and stylish period melodrama well over the years as it seems a far better medium in which to enjoy such an offbeat film. Armed with a literate script by future Oscar-winner Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) that integrates the timely and provocative theme of modern science butting heads with the dominating forces of organized religion into a compelling thriller narrative, Francis' film is mostly a riveting watch.
I say mostly because the film's biggest problem is its wealth of supporting characters battling it out for subplot supremacy and often overwhelming the main narrative thread without offering any payoff. For starters there's the clandestine affair Dr. Murray is carrying on with back alley prostitute Jennie Bailey (iconic British model Twiggy, more convincing as a grubby lady of the evening struggling to make ends meet than Heather Graham in From Hell) and the disturbing dreams Annabella suffers through due to her religious fervor over the anatomical drawings created for Dr. Rock by his wife. Both subplots could have enhanced the film and the romance between Murray and Jennie would have made for a fine emotional core at the film's cold-as-the-grave center, but they tend to detract from the activities of Fallon and Broom and Dr. Rock's moral dilemma which should be the primary focus of the film rather than something that happens on the sidelines. I can appreciate Francis and Harwood's ambitions in wanting to open up their recreated Edinburgh - constructed at Shepperton Studios - and allow its colorful characters to infuse the story with life and personality, but there is only so much that can be done with a running time of around 90 minutes (and that's without the end credits). It's a problem that Francis and editor Laurence Méry-Clark never seem to address and The Doctor and the Devils is hobbled by that lack of concentration and discipline.
What we are left with is a fine but sadly unexceptional thriller that is drained of tension by the end and only elevated to a few billion light years from greatness by some committed and professional performances. Dalton leads the pack as Dr. Rock and he's quite good as the conflicted man of medicine who sees his illegal doings as a potential benefit to civilization, and though he might be correct the moral implications of his actions (or lack thereof) tend to color him at times as unsympathetic. Pryce oozes demonic charisma as Fallon, while Rea provides him with a more outwardly loathsome id in the person of Broom. It's fun watching Pryce slip slowly into madness as Rea tries to be the one in control of their mental faculties. Sands and Twiggy make a cute couple and the former gives the story something approaching a moral center and the film is all the better for it. The standouts of the crowded supporting cast include Siân Phillips (I, Claudius) as Rock's sister with equal obsessions for social standing and the good graces of the church, Patrick Stewart (X-Men) and Lewis Fiander (Dr. Phibes Rises Again) as troubled colleagues of the surgeon, Phyllis Logan (Downton Abbey) as Rock's wife, and Beryl Reid (The Killing of Sister George) as an Irish woman who came to town on an important mission and had an unfortunate encounter with Fallon and Broom. It's interesting to note that both Stewart and Phillips co-starred in the classic BBC miniseries I, Claudius and several years later were in the cast of David Lynch's sorely underrated adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune, the latter of which featured Doctor director Francis on cinematography duties.
The grungy yet sumptuous cinematography by Gerry Turpin (Seance on a Wet Afternoon) and Norman Warwick (The Abominable Dr. Phibes) and Robert W. Laing's (The Boys in Company C) lived-in Gothic production design come alive through Shout! Factory's 1080p high-definition remaster of The Doctor and the Devils. The image quality looks sharp for the most part and retains the hazy, waking nightmare aesthetic of the film with appropriately drab and washed-out colors. The sole audio option is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo track that works well for the film, with the overlapping, accented dialogue and John Morris' dreamy soundtrack taking center stage in this robust mix. English subtitles have also been provided.
Bonus features are scant but meaty and kick off with a commentary track from author and screenwriter (Dracula: Dead and Loving It) Steve Haberman that is rich in background detail on the production of the film and relevant historical data. Executive producer Brooks sits down with producers Jonathan Sanger and Randy Auerbach for a charming but brief conversation (16 minutes) that covers much ground not explored in the Haberman commentary and has a warmer tone overall. Lastly we have the original theatrical trailer.
The Doctor and the Devils had the potential to be a classic Gothic chiller with its smart script, assured direction, and terrific ensemble cast. But a lack of narrative focus and hardly enough screen time to accommodate the myriad characters and subplots nearly reduces the film to a shapeless mess. The final product still offers a lot of chewy food for though and makes for a solid watch in spite of its flaws. Shout! Factory's Blu-ray release is the way to go if you're looking for a classy thriller that's better than it has any right to be.