A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #27: “The Doctor and the Devils” (1985)

by A.J. Hakari

Paying the price for progress is a horror trope that’s as ancient as black cats and cobwebs. These kinds of stories usually adopt the form of Frankenstein-style cautionary tales about futzing around in God’s domain and whatnot, with science breaking down barriers that morality and religion would rather see preserved. The Doctor and the Devils, the penultimate feature directed by Hammer/Amicus stalwart Freddie Francis, grounds itself in more historical context than speculative fantasy, but it makes similar points all the same. Man only has so many limits to which he’ll go in the name of discovering what makes himself tick, and it’s a journey Francis effectively covers with all the gory details intact.

It’s 19th century England, and Dr. Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton) finds himself working in a closed-minded industry. He’s driven to the breaking point not only by the outdated beliefs of his colleagues but by his inability to get proper cadavers on which to experiment. Thus, Rock has turned to more unsavory means to supply the bodies he needs, namely paying off grave-robbers who are more than glad to drop a corpse at his doorstep for a few soverigns. Enter Fallon (Jonathan Pryce) and Broom (Stephen Rea), two enterprising lowlifes who decide to get in on the action themselves and take things one step beyond. They like their pay, alright, and in order to ensure that they never want for booze ever again, the pair take it upon themselves to assist their “customers” to much, much earlier graves.

It was hard getting through The Doctor and the Devils without one of my favorite vintage horror treats, 1945’s The Body Snatcher, coming to mind. Not that Francis didn’t do a fine job himself, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how much better the other movie fared at checking off just about everything on this one’s to-do list. Putting skills that earned him two Oscar wins as a cinematographer to work, Francis gives the film a fantastically dirty look, providing an ideal hellhole from which the likes of Fallon and Broom would squirm. He’s also assembled one fine ensemble of actors, all of whom bring their own mixtures of camp and bravado to their respective roles. But it’s when things get particularly emotional and heated that the plot’s transparency starts to show. While Dalton’s Rock is intriguing and ethically questionable (turning a blind eye to Fallon and Broom’s crimes, so long as science is advanced), we’re left with a disappointing simple overview of his moral gray area when a more enriching exploration was called for.

While watching The Doctor and the Devils, you get the feeling that it could’ve gone further, but that’s not to detract from everything else the film accomplishes. It looks great, it’s acted well, and considering the subject matter, it deftly balances its more serious and exploitative sides. Francis’ career as a director would end on a bummer of a note afterwards with a nondescript B-movie, but at least The Doctor and the Devils came first to show us that one of Britain’s most prolific horror filmmakers still had one more genuine chiller in him.