Burke and Hare! Beware of the them,
Burke and Hare! The pair of them;
Out to snatch your body from you!
The horror film genre was never more prolific than in the early 1970s, when dozens upon dozens of lower-budgeted horror movies emanating from Europe but most especially Britain created an enormous glut that, among other things, probably accelerated the near-collapse the British film industry. Most of these horror films were pretty dreary and desperate. Few broke new ground but nearly all tried to spice things up with a bit more violence and a lot more nudity than had been allowed just a few years before.
Somewhat lost in this mad scramble of production was the very peculiar Burke & Hare (1972), an independent feature not made by any of the companies one usually associates with such pictures, notably Hammer, Amicus, or Tigon.
The film is a serious and historically faithful account of the notorious pair who, with the help of Hare's wife and Burke's mistress, murdered at least 16 people between November 1827 and October 1828, secretly selling their victim's bodies at a considerable profit to University of Edinburgh anatomy lecturer Dr. Robert Knox. This aspect of the film is pretty fascinating because, despite its low budget, it gets so many period details and facts about the case exactly right.
However, the filmmakers hedged their bets, offsetting much of this success with bizarrely anachronistic and incongruous elements. The main titles, for instance, are accompanied by a novelty rock song, and a mostly comic, risqué subplot involving a whorehouse is more like Confessions of a 19th Century Medical Student than what one would expect to find in a movie entitled Burke & Hare.
A Redemption Films release via Kino-Lorber, Burke & Hare reportedly has been "mastered in HD from the 35mm negative." To my eyes the image is reasonably good but not great. Of course, "the 35mm negative" doesn't necessarily mean the 35mm camera negative, and might just as easily refer to an inter-negative of less quality. Regardless, the transfer certainly looks significantly better than it ever has on home video, and most should be pleased. Included are several extras, including an on-camera interview with co-star Françoise Pascal.
The story is strangely structured. An earlier, equally interesting little picture called The Flesh and the Fiends (U.S. title: Mania, 1960) focused its attentions on Dr. Knox (played Peter Cushing), rather than Burke & Hare. Here conversely, Ernle Bradford's screenplay for Burke & Hare is almost an ensemble film, devoting nearly equal time to Knox (Harry Andrews) and his associates, medical student Arbuthnot (Alan Tucker) and his friends, and prostitutes Marie (Françoise Pascal) and Janet (Yutte Stensgaard) and the brothel as it does to Irish immigrants William Burke (Derren Nesbitt), William Hare (Glynn Edwards), and their spouses (Dee Shenderey and Yootha Joyce, respectively, the latter Edwards's real-life wife and star of George and Mildred).
But the movie nonetheless gets its facts right. A dearth of cadavers for medical research gave rise to their unethical acquisition, as epitomized by Burke & Hare.
Their "trade" started innocently enough. Cobbler Burke and lodging house owner Hare bring the body of a dead pensioner, who had died of natural causes, to the medical facilities of Dr. Knox, Hare hoping to recover some of the £4 in back rent the dead man reportedly owed him. They are surprised to receive the princely sum of £7. 10 shillings for the body, with a standing offer of up to ten pounds for any additional bodies the pair might - ahem - "stumble upon." Burke & Hare begin murdering the homeless and prostitutes, typically liquoring them up at nearby pubs, taking them home and, the victim nearly unconscious, asphyxiating them on a nearby bed. At first they keep this activity from their spouses but once found out, they eagerly join in the melee. As in life Burke and Hare are never grave robbers, unlike other, often wildly inaccurate films featuring the infamous duo, such Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde, which also finds them in 1880s London.
Burke and particularly Hare's casual, matter-of-fact approach to murder, and their drunken victims' frantic, vain efforts to fend them off, are genuinely disturbing, much more so than what audiences were usually accustomed to in early-'70s horror films. Of the foursome, only Burke feels any regret over the killings, but even he is more than willing to lend a hand to snuff out another victim.
Burke & Hare plays almost as if it were conceived exclusively along these serious, non-exploitative lines, but then abruptly changed course at some point to make it more exploitable. For instance, their ultimate fate, with Burke being convicted, hanged, and publicly dissected (with his skeleton put on display, his blood used like ink, and his skin tanned and bound into calling card case), and Hare reportedly tossed into a lime pit and blinded, are not dramatized as one might have assumed.
(Sergei Hasenecz adds, "You might want to note that Hare was offered immunity if he testified against Burke, which he did. Neither Hare nor the two women were prosecuted. Helen McDougal and Margaret Hare were both separately attacked by mobs, Mrs. Hare escaping a lynching. Burke did make a sworn confession in which he also stated Knox knew nothing about the origins of the bodies. The story of Hare being tossed into a lime pit and later becoming a blind beggar has never been confirmed and is probably an urban legend.")
And yet in other respects Burke & Hare is almost ludicrous. The comic title song, performed by The Scaffold (a trio that included Paul McCartney's brother Mike McGear/Peter McCarthy) is wildly inapt. The unfocused script spends a large part of its running time at a nearby whorehouse with little connection to Burke & Hare's activities. In these scenes various doctors and medical students indulge themselves, while its madam (Joan Carol, the wife of director Vernon Sewell, whose last film this was) peeps through various holes, looking in on the kinky escapades of her half-naked girls and their clients. A blossoming semi-romance between shy Arbuthnot and Marie leads nowhere and most of the other scenes are played for laughs. Even when a fire breaks out in the whorehouse, the musical underscoring is like something out of a Jerry Lewis movie.
The film confines itself to cramped sets and a section of backlot possibly constructed for something else, but overall the sets, costumes, and props evoke the period better than similar low-budget ($200,000-$350,000?) films. Nevertheless, the cheapness shows in revealing mistakes. The shadow of the boom mike appears in a shot or two, and attempts to create the ambiance of candlelit rooms don't work. The obscured but obviously electrically powered lights are much too bright; an electrical cord is even visible powering the "candle" inside a Jack-o-lantern.
Video & Audio
The 1.66:1 1920 x 1080p Burke & Hare is a curious transfer. There is what appears to be a hard matte on the right side of the frame but not the left, which appears wide open to the edge of the film gate, its width changing from shot-to-shot. The image is reasonably sharp and the color good but not mesmerizingly so. On one reel the image fluctuates from light to dark. The 94-minute, region A encoded disc offers decent mono audio, English only, with no subtitle options.
Supplements include a pleasant interview with actress Françoise Pascal and a featurette called "Grave Desires: Corpses on Film." That supplement features one Dr. Patricia MacCormack, who looks like she might be an assistant clerk at a tattoo parlor but who in fact teaches film studies at Anglia Ruskin University. An original trailer for this and other genre titles rounds out the package.
Somewhat obscure, the alternately ambitious and disturbing, silly and trivial Burke & Hare deserves to be better known and is heartily Recommended, particularly to genre fans.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.