A few films have been made about the misadventures of Burke and Hare, two Irish immigrants to Scotland that turned to murder to procure bodies to sell to Edinburgh medical students, but 1971's Burke & Hare, directed by Vernon Sewell, is perhaps the oddest of the lot.
William Burke (Derren Nesbitt) is a down on his luck cobbler who lives in the lodging house of his friend William Hare (Glynn Edwards). When one of the elderly lodgers passes away, Hare gets the idea that instead of carting him to the mortuary, he and Hare ought to sell him to medical students, to try and recoup some of the money the fellow owed. At first, Burke is hesitant, but seeing as both are in need of funds, they give it a go, doing their best to be discrete and avoid detection by the authorities, since the selling of cadavers is severely restricted, though most people look the other way. The students all study under the gnarly Dr. Knox (Harry Andrews), who is none too concerned about the provenance of the bodies he buys, as long as he has subjects for his dissections.
Overjoyed with the money they made from just one corpse, Burke and Hare resolve they will sell the bodies of any of Hare's elderly tenants when they die. Only, the oldsters don't exactly cooperate on the timing of their deaths. Even the fellow with typhus, seemingly on his last breaths, insists on holding on longer than is strictly considerate. They take him to another room, supposedly to prepare him to go to the hospital, and he starts making a fuss, and Hare is only trying to quiet him with the pillow on his face, but he dies nonetheless. He's worth more than the first one, being fresher, and once they've done one murder, however accidental they might tell themselves it was, it's no far step to doing another, and another, especially once the wives get involved. They are much less reluctant than one might expect.
Interspersed with the tale of Burke and Hare's descent into decadence (parallel to their increase in wealth) is the story of the various medical students, particularly their time spent at the brothel of one Madame Thompson (Joan Carol). McPhee (Robin Hawdon) is the experienced one, both in his studies and his knowledge of women, and Jimmy (Alan Tucker) is the innocent youth, who has never been with a woman before and only reluctantly tags along. That is, until he falls madly in love with the radiant beauty of Marie (Francoise Pascal), a French prostitute in Madame Thompson's employ. McPhee is more focused on Janet (Yutte Stensgaard), and he isn't one for romantic entanglements anyway. This portion of the film plays more like a sex comedy, which would seem to be quite at odds with the portions focused on murder and cadaver selling, but somehow it all works out, and the two plot strands do come together at the end, though the climactic final scene is a tad abrupt.
Burke & Hare is a mish mash of a film, though as noted it does seem to work. The goofiness of the brothel scenes alternates with some serious drama and character work with Burke, Hare and their wives. Their transition from poor and grasping, but basically decent folks who wouldn't think of murdering strangers (included the mentally challenged and aged) to up and coming petit bourgeois with nice apartments and well-turned clothes, who happen to make their money by cold blooded murder, is subtle, well-handled and deliciously ironic. The performances of all four, but Nesbitt and Edwards particularly, are natural and effortless. The viewer has no problem believing what happens, as each step logically leads to the next one. And one supposes that belief is natural since, dramatic license aside, the story is essentially true.
Director Vernon Sewell certainly has a unique vision for the tale, and plays it with a light hand, avoiding anything too gruesome, except in the abstract. The romps and sly humor keep the tone airy enough to throw the morbid content into sharp relief. There are a few rough spots in the narrative, one or too coincidences that are perhaps too neat, and as stated the climax is quite abrupt, but other than this there are few flaws. Most of the performances are at least competent, and a number even quite good, and one never feels that the dialogue is stilted or unnatural. The sets are lovely and quite detailed, and fun to look simply for their craftsmanship. Burke & Hare is certainly not for all tastes, but for fans of seventies British horror, particularly in the Hammer and Monarch Studios vein, this is quite a treat. Highly recommended.
The video is 1.66:1 widescreen, and does have a few problems, which is perhaps not surprising in a film from the seventies. At times the image is a bit murky, with some grain, and there are a lot of scratches, dirt, etc. visible on the print, though this varies in intensity, sometimes showing almost none at all. In at least one scene, the brightness of the image pulses up and down for a couple of minutes. But for all that, it looks well enough, and is typical of this kind of film in this era.
Audio is Dolby digital 2 channel, and works well enough. The dialogue always seems clear, and no hiss or other problems are readily heard. No subtitles or alternate language tracks are included.
There are a few extras included. Those are:
Grave Desires: Corpses on Film
This is a twelve and a half minute interview with Dr. Patricia MacCormack, who certainly doesn't fit the stereotype of the dowdy college professor, with her nose piercing and goth inspired attire. Dr. MacCormack talks about death and corpses in film through the years, tracing themes and ambiguities. This is actually quite interesting.
Francoise Pascal Interview
This is quite short, just over four minutes, and features Francoise Pascal, who played Marie in the film, answering a few questions. Pascal is quite endearing, and provides some engaging content, despite the short length.
Trailers are included for the feature Burke & Hare, Blood Beast Terror, Killer's Moon, Virgin Witch and The Asphyx.
Burke & Hare is an odd and morbid film, but well-crafted and often quite fun for all that. Vernon Sewell weaves together two seemingly disparate plot lines, which vary considerably in content and mood, but somehow meshes them into a unified whole. This is not the take that one would naturally expect for the subject matter, but it works even so. The film is decidedly strange, but enjoyable.