Thursday, May 28, 2015

Burke and Hare-athon Part V: Burke and Hare (1972)

Burke and Hare (1972)
Dir. Vernon Sewell
Written by Ernle Bradford
Starring Derren Nesbitt, Glynn Edwards, Harry Andrews

Twelve years after their last romp on the silver screen, Burke and Hare returned in 1972 to again find the world of British cinema a vastly changed place. When THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS premiered in 1960, it was in the first giddy rush of the Hammer Films tsunami that was ushering in a new wave of British horror films that were as shocking at the time as they seem staid and classy by today’s standards. By 1972, though, the whole industry was in trouble. The British horror renaissance of the late 50’s was carried through the 60’s by its boundary-pushing violent content, but as the early 70’s rolled around it was becoming painfully apparent that they were being outstripped by foreign cinema, where looser rules were allowing a level of violence which would have been unimaginable a decade earlier. THE WILD BUNCH alone probably had more blood than the preceding ten years of British horror combined. Meanwhile in Italy, the giallo was really hitting its stride, plumbing new depths of sexual depravity along with sadistic and imaginative gore. The Brits, though, were still constrained by a relatively severe censorship code which routinely rejected violent films (including notorious ones like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE three years later) and were simply unable to respond to the escalating explicitness of overseas exploitation and genre fare.

What could British cinema do to compete against this rising tide of increasingly provocative genre madness? Nothing, really. Two years after this, Hammer would be desperate enough to try a kung-fu vampire collaboration with the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers, and two years after that the studio would close its doors permanently. Knockoff studios like Tigon and Amicus soon followed suit. Basically, the entire industry was in a state of disorganized retreat. But in 1972, director Vernon Sewell (or someone in the production) had an idea how to save it. Here, I can’t contain myself any longer, I need you to click on the link below so you know what I’m talking about.

Burke And Hare! Beware of them! Burke and Hare, the pair of ‘em! They want to steal, your body from you!

The film opens with that jaunty theme by English comedy/musical trio The Scaffold. Which, if I may be so bold, seems maybe a tad inappropriate for a story about a duo of remorseless serial killers. For better or worse, though, as the movie progresses it becomes obvious that not only is the song the sole highlight of the whole enterprise, it also sets an entirely appropriate tone for what follows. Ok now that I think about it, it’s obviously for the worse, I don’t know why I bothered throwing that “for better” possibility in there at all. I’m a positive person at all but come on, there are limits and this movie is one of them. But at least it’s unique. The only version of this true story of murder to approach the material as a cheeky sex romp.

BURKE AND HARE --the first adaptation to feature the names of the killers as its title, and the first to be shot in color-- is on paper structured relatively closely to THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS. Like the last two adaptations, it begins with scary grave robbers who will never be seen again. Again, we have a meandering anti-narrative composed of separate and rarely related storylines about our titular ghouls, Dr. Knox, a sensitive, prostitute-dating HGMS, the prostitute in question (in this case, NOT named Mary Paterson, but obviously based on her), HGMS’s friends, the prostitute’s friends, the Madam of the whorehouse, Daft Jamie, and this one throws in Mrs. Burke and Mrs. Hare for good measure as well (though thankfully it eliminates the extraneous second HGMS from FLESH). Things play out more or less identically with only a few minor narrative variations --mostly at the very end-- and in general more or less accurately reflect the real historical account. The difference here is tone. Director Vernon Sewell,* an old British cinema veteran (directing films as far back as 1933), shoots it like a horror movie, full of ominous shadows and decaying sets. But everything else --from the broad, campy performances to the bizarrely whimsical score-- seems to suggest a breezy, bawdy comedy. About murder.

Well, sometimes about murder, anyway. An intolerable, borderline criminal amount of time is spent on the adventures of our obligatory HGMS (Alan Tucker… uh… he was in a couple episodes of Dr. Who in the 70’s. “Gentleman #1” in a TV version of Measure For Measure?) and his prostitute girlfriend, (François Pascal, Girl at Orgy (uncredited) INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED, THE IRON ROSE) while they have some kind of relationship drama which is even less interesting than the one in FLESH AND THE FIENDS. But they’re absolutely necessary for the film to work, because let’s face it, there’s not really enough of a story here between Burke and Hare and their wives and Knox and the other Edinborough doctors and Daft Jamie and the always-absent Gray family (you remember, the ones who actually solved the case in real life and are completely absent from the movie versions) to make a whole movie, that would never fly, there’s maybe 20 minutes of story in there, tops. No, instead Sewell (or more likely his producers at Tigon**) correctly realized that in order to make this whole Burke and Hare thing into a movie, they’d have to devote most of their time to the wacky goings-on at Pascal’s brothel, where peephole scenes of topless ladies and hi-larious hijinks straight out of PORKY’S seem to take up like a third of the runtime, no joke. While you’re considering that, please take a moment to remember that the only reason we’re even being introduced to Pascal in the first place is so that she can eventually be murdered at the very end of the movie. Other than that, she has no connection whatsoever to Burke and Hare’s story, and the exploits of her many naked colleagues have absolutely none at all.

Scary, scary stuff.

I don’t know if it’s worth complaining that the movie is larded up with a bunch of raunchy horseplay, but the fact that it kinda defines the picture speaks a lot about how little else is going on here. Dr. Knox gets roughly the same screen time he did in THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, but Harry Andrews’s [Donatello in THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY] somnambulistic take on the character offers only an eyepatch by way of characterization, and the movie seems content with that. Burke and Hare (here played by Darren Nesbitt [WHERE EAGLES DARE, “Replacement Milkman” (uncredited) THE AMOROUS MILKMAN] and Glynn Edwards [ZULU, GET CARTER] respectively) probably get the most screen time, but the movie never comes up with anything especially interesting for them to do. Adding their wives (Dee Shenderey, [nothing] and Edward’s real-life wife Yootha Joyce [A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS]) to the mix does little except water things down and clutter up the obligatory conversations explaining the plan. All four actors are capable enough, but only Nesbitt really makes an impression, inexplicably playing Hare as a fairly reluctant murderer and more of a pretty boy/womanizing charmer type (or, as the song lyrics describe him: “Burke is fair and over-sexed/ he likes bodies in bed /  (as opposed to) Hare is grim and dull [dark?] and [?overplexed??] he likes bodies when dead”). His immortalized-in-song tendency towards being “oversexed” is exemplified in a lengthy later sequence where he has something of a whiskey-fueled three-way with Pascal and her friend, as a prelude to murdering one of them. The movie seems to think this is great fun, because, boobs.

That the boobs leave a significantly larger impression than either of our two title characters should be a decent indicator of the amount of effort on display here, and that goes for everything behind the camera as well as in front of it. It’s full of awkward edits, whiplash tone changes, and continuity errors. Here’s a game you can play: where in the room, exactly, is the gentleman in the dapper red neckerchief sitting in the following consecutive shots from an early lecture scene?

If you guessed “everywhere at once,” congratulations, you now understand the level of effort they were putting in to this one.

The weirdest aspect of this production, other than the fact that like a third of it is a swingin’ sex romp, is the end: since we’ve spent so many endless, endless hours watching the dull relationship of our HGMS, you assume he’s gonna solve the murder or something, or at least get Halloran’ed like the guy from THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS. Actually, neither of these things happen. He begins to get suspicious of our pair of ghouls (who did not, in all honesty, do a whole lot to cover their trail) but the reason they get busted is because after they off old Mrs. Docherty, they then have a big Irish party with a bunch of friends, get drunk, and get into a fight over a woman. When the police burst in over the noise, one of them gets knocked into a cabinet, which falls opens revealing the body. That’s it, that’s their big comeuppance. And then the movie just ends, right there, with a narrator explaining the rest of the story as that jangly theme music comes up again.

Burke's face says it all.

What the fuck kind of ending is that? It’s so random and unrelated to anything else in the story that it seems like some kind of postmodern joke, haha, you watched all that horsehit and none of it actually mattered, ain’t we a bunch of stinkers! But even were that a funny joke, there’s little evidence in the script to suggest anyone here was aware of what humor is, exactly. It’s all played broadly, and the music seems to think all this is very droll, but there aren’t really any actual jokes here. Which is weird, because every single previous iteration of this story up til now has a bunch of mordantly funny one-liners, but a darker tone. This one has a lighthearted comedy tone, but no actual funny lines. The script, written by British historian Ernle Bradford (wikipedia says he’s known for “specializing in the Mediterranean world and naval topics”) has every indication that it’s meant to be a more or less straightforward telling of his real historical incident. But the production disagrees, it thinks it’s a cheeky and randy face, but unfortunately the only joke it’s ever able to come up with is, “haha, look at this weird sex thing. Titties!” I’ve read a few other reviews where people seem to be charmed by the irreverent tone here, but I must confess that I am not one of them. Other than the rockin’ theme song, this is one of the dullest and most incompetent renderings of this particular tale. As the lyrics warn, “In the land of bonny Scotsmen, it’s not so bonny today.” Little wonder that director Sewell retired after this debacle, and spent his remaining years (a quarter-century of them, as he died in 2001!) living the good life and (presumably) acting confused and changing the subject whenever anyone brought up the subject of corpse-snatching. Sewell wasn’t primarily a horror director anyway; of his 36 directing credits, only three --his last three-- are horror, and judging from the confused postmodernist jokiness of CRIMSON ALTAR and the straight up idiocy of BLOOD BEAST TERROR** it probably wasn’t really his bag. I can’t imagine he looked back too fondly on this mess in his later years, but I bet he did catch himself singing that theme song from time to time.

So here ya go Vernon, let the soothing sound of jangling British folk-pop wash away the shame that is this crappy movie one more time. This one’s for you.

*whom we last encountered in CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR and the daffy BLOOD BEAST TERROR.

**Which, interestingly, features a play-within-the-movie that features Burke and Hare, or similar bodysnatching ghouls.

2010: Burke and Hare

  • Title: Burke and Hare (1972)
  • Genre: Sex Romp/ Historical Film
  • Story regulars: Burke, Hare, Knox, Paterson (though with a different namer), Daft Jamie, Mrs. Burke, Mrs. Hare, HGMS, Mrs. Docherty.
  • Attitude towards Dr. Knox: Negative/bored by
  • Wonky eye or no? Eyepatch presumably stands in for it.
  • Scottish accents? Harry Andrews kinda does one. Pretty sure he’s the only one.
  • Irish accents? Yeah, Nesbitt in particular
  • Heaving cleavage? Yes sir, and quite a bit of just straight up nudity.
  • Rockin’ theme music? Hell yeah, the best ever.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Burke and Hare-athon Part IV: The Flesh And The Fiends

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)
Dir. John Gilling
Written by John Gilling, Leon Griffiths
Starring Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, George Rose

We’re making progress here. THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS is the first Burke and Hare movie to look and feel like an actual movie, not an indifferently staged and awkwardly truncated stage play. It begins with a succinct and perfect little bit of pure cinema: in the galling quiet of the night, two miscreants wordlessly stride into a graveyard. Their dread purpose is made clear by the instruments they bring with them: kart, chains and shovels. The camera furtively follows them as they choose a grave and begin digging, the second shovel of dirt flying directly into the camera (too bad this wasn’t 3-D!), SMASH CUT TO TITLE.

The ANATOMIST also began with an image of graverobbers, but there’s something distinctly cinematic about this version, a realization --for the first time in two decades of films on this subject-- that along with impassioned soliloquies on the subject of science, there’s probably an advantage to pursuing some visual possibilities as well. How the fuck it took them so long to realize that, I cannot say, but there you have it. It’s understandable that this is an improvement, though, since it’s co-writer/director John Gilling’s second pass on the subject. He also wrote (but did not direct) the 1948 THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART, and here he is again, adapting the same source material, but more than ten years later, in a very different era of filmmaking.

It had not been so very long since the 1956 U.K. premier of THE ANATOMIST, but in British horror cinema, everything had changed. Just a year after the British public had gotten Alastair Sim pontificating endlessly about science in peoples’ living rooms, Hammer Studios released THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which pushed the boundaries of what the strict British censors would allow and became a mammoth, runaway hit that established Hammer as the premier horror studio in the world and launched what would become a run of 20+ years and dozens of horror movies. Three years later, Gilling was working for early Hammer imitator Triad Productions (he would graduate to Hammer itself the next year and go on to a venerable career with the studio including THE REPTILE, PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, and SHADOW OF THE CAT), and setting himself the task of re-creating his earlier adaptation in an era more welcoming of atmospheric, grisly tales of murder. In a possible “fuck you” to the censors of the 40’s who had banned him from using the actual names of the killers, the first image of the film is a title card emphatically asserting: “[this] is a story of vice and murder. We make no apologies to the dead. It is all true.”

One of the biggest changes from THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART is immediately evident: After the wordless graverobbing introduction, the action shifts immediately to a lecture by Dr. Knox. Knox is barely present in the earlier film, appearing only in a single scene near the middle and coming off as a cold, amoral villain absolutely complicit in the coverup of murder. Here, though, he gets a rousing introduction where he inspires dozens of young pupils to a standing ovation with the power of his words (he quotes Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man: “know then, thyself, presume not God to scan / the proper study of mankind is man” and urges them to see death as not just an enemy, but also as one more means by which to learn. That seems a little morbid for what appears to be a graduation ceremony, but hey, I guess he knows his crowd because they eat it up). Next thing we know, he’s also kind-heartedly helping out well-meaning but ne’er-do-well pupil Jackson (John Cairney, Hylas in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS) by offering him a job. Quite a far cry from Arnold Bell’s icy schemer in WILLIAM HART and Alastair Sim’s grandstanding bully in THE ANATOMIST. But there are hints of problems on the horizon: he gently berates the young student for being “too emotional” over medicine, and assures him he’ll be ready to graduate only once he can think of a patient “in the abstract.” Man, if I ever say anything that obviously foreshadowing of my own downfall, go ahead and let me know, huh?

Knox is played by Peter Cushing, of course, in what is for my money is one of his best and most unfairly ignored performances. Having already portrayed the amoral, obsessed scientist Victor Frankenstein twice (in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and a year later its sequel, REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN) Cushing was obvious typecasting for the role of Knox, but as always the actor proves willing to go the extra mile, crafting a subtly different character here from many of the same parts. His Knox is arrogant, but not in the blustery, bullying way Sim’s Knox was. Oh, he can be just as witheringly caustic, as we see in a magnificent scene where he efficiently administers an eloquent but remorseless verbal thrashing to a gaggle of obsequious rich guys at a party. But he also has a softer side, as we see in his kindly relationship with his niece (June Laverick) and his tough-love coaching of Jackson. And unlike Sim, whose boundless contempt seemed to be a function of egomania as much as genuine conviction, Cushing’s Knox seems both sincere and fundamentally altruistic. His frustration with the backwards attitude of the establishment is perfectly reasonable; if he has no choice but to be complicit in bodysnatching in order to save lives, he’s willing to do it. This will be his downfall, obviously, but for the first time here his attitude seems somewhat more understandable. Cushing’s subtle but noticeable inclusion of the detail of Knox’s drooping left eye --ruined by smallpox during his youth-- is a nice visual illustration of his moral myopia; he sees the big picture more clearly than almost anyone, but at the expense of the personal, the immediate. These nuances make this Dr. Knox by far the most complex and interesting version of the character anywhere in the annals of the Burke and Hare-athon.

The movie begins with Knox, but unlike THE ANATOMIST, it’s not exclusively focused on him. Soon enough, we’re introduced to our Burke and Hare, in this case played by George Rose (PIRATES OF PENZANCE, but today best know for his own real-life murder mystery) and Donald Pleasance (RAW MEAT, every single movie released between 1956 and 1990) respectively. And just as with Dr. Knox, it’s immediately obvious that this is a very different Burke and Hare then we've encountered in previous incarnations. First off, they’re introduced as loutish drunks before they’ve ever entered the corpse procurement profession. It’s the first movie to depict their first sale to the medical establishment --a tenant of the Hare’s boarding house who had died of natural causes (the movie makes Burke the proprietor instead of Hare, for whatever reason)-- to some extent offering some explanation of their long slide into serial murder. We also spend significantly more time with them than any prior version, taking in their homelife, discovering what they’re doing with the money (squandering it on ostentatious clothes and gallons of whiskey) and even meeting a significant other; Mrs. Burke (Renee Houston, REPULSON) appears as an accomplish to our murderous duo here, though Mrs. Hare is curiously absent. The result of these new details are a pair of miscreants initially less one-dimensionally murderous than their previous incarnations; they’re vain, petty louts who turn to murder for money, but they’re also pathetic in a way which Slaughter/Moore and Ripper/Kelly were not. Murder isn’t exactly their natural inclination, but they’re heartless enough that when it turns out to be a lucrative profession, they eagerly embrace it.

Rose plays Burke as more or less an idiot, a violent brute with no qualms about murder if there’s a payday in it. That in itself isn’t especially different from the previous versions of the character (though historically Burke was thought to be the more intelligent of the two), but Pleasance makes Hare a little bit more interesting. He’s wittier, more calculating; what Burke does remorselessly without much thought, Hare guilds with self-serving rationalizations, egging his accomplice on. Burke begins the actual killing, but Pleasance’s reaction is the more intriguing: he covers his mouth with his hands in shock, but his wide eyes seem to suggest excitement more than than horror. It’s never explicitly stated, but his new career path seems to wake something in him even more disturbing than murder for money. Of all the incarnations of the two killers, Pleasance’s silver-tongued sadist is probably the most unsettling and memorable.

Besides Knox, Burke and Hare, we also follow the relationship between Knox’s niece and his dishwater-dull HGMS assistant Dr. Mitchell (Dermot Walsh, 1960’s THE CHALLENGE), and the burgeoning relationship between our ne’er-do-well HGMS assistant Jackson and a bawdy local prostitute named… Mary Paterson (Billie Whitelaw, FRENZY, THE OMEN, THE DARK CRYSTAL). This is the first film adaptation that gets some mileage out of the idea that Paterson is recognized by a student after her death, and likewise the first to imagine a romantic relationship between them. Obviously, the sex-and-violence angle is catnip for film writers, and so it’s little wonder that once Gilling had put it out in the world, it would find its way into virtually every subsequent version. It’s a good idea on paper, a way to link the victims of Burke and Hare’s crimes to the medical school where our heroes will eventually unravel the mystery of where these bodies are coming from (never mind that in real life, the murders were detected by a poor family staying at the Hares’ boarding house). 

On paper that sounds good. In practice, though, this structure would become the achilles heel of the entire enterprise of making Burke and Hare adaptations. Let’s count our characters now: Knox, Burke, Hare, Mrs. Burke, HGMS #1, Knox’s Niece, HGMS #2, Mary Paterson, and also I should mention we again get to spend some time with Daft Jamie (Melvyn Hayes, who had played young Victor Frankenstein in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN a few years prior). What is this, a prequel to NASHVILLE? The essential problem with this and almost every subsequent variation of this story is that there are just too god damn many characters, and most of them have absolutely nothing to do until near the very end. It seems like a good idea to involve our obligatory HGMS’s with the victims in order to give them a more personal stake in the mystery, but any benefit gained from this plot contrivance is more than offset by the tedium of having to deal with their pointless lives and relationships which do not in any meaningful way intersect with the actual story of Burke and Hare until the very end of the movie.

This leaves the whole enterprise feeling weirdly rudderless. Who, exactly, is the main character here? Nobody! Not a single person in this script would qualify as a character who encounters conflict and is ultimately changed by his or her experience. They’re all almost completely passive until the final reveal, and the only person who is active in the climax (the HGMS who ultimately discovers Burke and Hare’s secret) is the one with the least involvement in any other part of the plot. GREED OF WILLIAM HART and THE ANATOMIST are inferior films in almost every way, but they at least had their own clear sense of who the protagonist was, and how the basic story mechanics served that protagonist. THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS really struggles on this front. Burke and Hare themselves probably have the most screen time, but they don’t really have anything resembling an arc. One of the HGMS’s solves the mystery, but is basically a nonentity otherwise. And the person the film begins and ends with --Dr. Knox-- is only peripherally involved in any of the actual drama.

Oddly, this film, like THE ANATOMIST, ends with an inexplicably sympathetic scene of support for Dr. Knox. Cushing’s Knox is admittedly a little more likeable than Sim’s was, but even he admits, at the end, that he knew Burke and Hare were murderers. He does a little more soul-searching than his predecessors, but jeez, does it really count as character growth just that he feels a little bad about it and then everyone forgives him? I mean, I kind of appreciate that the film doesn’t go the usual horror movie route and condemn the scientists for meddling in God’s domain or whatever, but does this guy really deserve a happy ending (especially an ahistorical one)? Cushing’s performance is nuanced enough to make it kind of work; though his rhetoric remains robust, you can see the fight drain out of him, see his eyes grow suddenly tired. There’s a moment when a chance remark by a child makes him realize just how infamous he is, and he suddenly actually seems to really get it for the first time. The look of quiet devastation on his face is a truly gut-wrenching thing to behold, maybe one of Cushing’s very strongest scenes in his entire venerable career. But I don’t know. The whole point of telling this story is to remind us that it’s wrong to abet murder, even if it’s in the service of the greater good? No shit. At the very least, the majority of the story has nothing to do with that point, so it seems an odd note to end on.

The iffy narrative structure is a major flaw, but at least the movie has plenty of strengths to balance it. Pretty much every scene with Burke and Hare is gold, Cushing is terrific as Knox, and the script is peppered with darkly hilarious wit, most of it delivered by Cushing or Pleasance in the drollest possible manner.* Moreover, aside from being by far the most cinematic adaptation of this material so far, it is also the first unambiguous horror film; the murder scenes are sumptuously layered with eerie hard lighting that makes them feel exaggerated and nightmarish, and the gothic, expressionist sets heighten that sense. Even beyond that, though, this is a surprisingly gritty experience. For 1960, there’s quite a bit of sex, gore, and grotesquery on display. While there’s some broad hints that Paterson is a prostitute in THE ANATOMIST, here there’s no doubt. She lives in some kind of bawdy house where the downstairs living room has been retrofitted into some kind of weird orgy pad. As our heroes walk by we can see all manner of sexual chicanery happening within, including, humorously, a bare-ass naked lady just sort of ambling around in circles with no clear objective. The pub where Burke and Hare find their victims is equally raucous and lewd, topless women drunkenly pawing at their would-be paramours and sloppy fights breaking out at random. Producers Robert Baker and Monty Berman were known for inserting sometimes incongruous nudity into their productions, but here it works well to establish the debased world these characters inhabit. Likewise, the surprising (for 1960) gore adds some much-needed spice. We see a long-decayed body pulled from the ground, watch two brutal (though bloodless) murders, an ugly attempted rape (which thankfully the movie does not try to play as sexy), and even watch Hare get his eyes burned out (presumably a reference to the folk legend that he was blinded by a mob following his release). This ain’t your grandpappy’s Burke and Hare; these guys inhabit a world of drunken, desperate poverty and hopeless, disease-ridden mindless sex. I mean, it ain’t exactly CALIGULA or nothin’ but it’s a far cry from the chatty, sanitized visions of this story we got in 1948 and 1956.

THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS contains a whole slew of “firsts,” and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that it would dominate the way the story was told for the rest of the century. It’s the first movie to suggest a relationship between a HGMS and Peterson, the first to clutter up the story with way too many characters, the first to include a significant emphasis on sexuality, gore, and drunken debauchery, the first to actually show Burke and Hare’s fate, and the first to fall clearly into the horror genre. Every one of these factors would strongly influence both the structure and the feel of the next few versions, which is strange, because the movie itself was a box-office disappointment and seldom available for decades. I guess this movie is like the Velvet Underground; not too many people saw it, but everyone who did went off and made their own Burke and Hare movie. But anyway, they couldn’t have picked a better one to try and rip off, because between the fine cinematography, terrific performances and blackly funny script, this one’s a real winner. Only the shapeless structure holds it back from being a real genre classic, but that’s forgivable in light of the things it gets right. I don’t want to say it was worth 16 people getting murdered to get a horror movie this good… but you know, not a bad silver lining, anyway.

*On the subject of Parliament’s reticence to help medical schools gain easier access to cadavers, Knox quips, “with five hundred walking corpses there, you would think they could spare one.”


2010: Burke and Hare

Burke and Hare-athon Checklist!

  • Title: The Flesh And The Fiends
  • Genre: Horror/Dark Comedy
  • Story regulars: Burke, Hare, Knox, Paterson, Daft Jamie, Mrs. Burke, HGMS. No Mrs. Docherty in this case, and our usual HGMS is actually TWO HGMS’s this time around.
  • Attitude towards Dr. Knox: Ambiguous, but ultimately positive.
  • Wonky eye or no? Hell yeah, the best ever.
  • Scottish accents? Only Billie Whitelaw as Mary Paterson attempts a Scottish Brogue, but she's pretty crazy. I didn't mention that to save space in the review, but boy, does she make dating an alcoholic prostitute not look very appealing despite the cleavage.
  • Irish accents? Both Rose and Pleasance oblige with an Irish accent, though neither goes over the top with it.
  • Heaving cleavage? Yes sir.
  • Rockin’ theme music? No, although a nice scary score.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Burke and Hare-athon Part III: The Anatomist

The Anatomist (1956)
Dir. Dennis Vance
Written by James Bridie (play), Harry Allan Towers (Screen Adaptation)
Starring Alistair Sim, George Cole, Adrienne Corri, Michael Ripper, Diarmuid Kelly

THE ANATOMIST is the second version of the Burke and Hare story to be committed to celluloid. Or, well, actually the first. Or, to be more specific, the first, third, fourth, fifth, and eighth. Kinda. See, THE ANATOMIST is actually a frequently adapted play written by Scottish playwright James Bridie back in 1931. I can find some evidence that it may have been adapted for the medium of radio as early as 1937 (the BBC “Genome” Beta version has its premier Oct 10, 1937), but it was certainly adapted for the small screen first in 1939, with Andrew Cruickshank (later to star in another Bridie adaptation, THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN) in the titular role as Dr. Knox. (Side note: Why TV was allowed to use the real names of Burke, Hare, and Knox, while THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART --a decade later-- was not, remains a mystery). As far as I can tell, no copy of this 1939 show exists today, and I can’t even find stills of it, leading me to assume that, like so many BBC programs, it was aired once and discarded, never to be seen again. There was supposedly another TV version in 1949 (though the sole source for that information is the not-always-reliable IMDB), but again, if it was ever saved to begin with, it appears to be utterly unavailable now.

The version we concern ourselves with here, then, is the Dennis Vance version which appears to have premiered in 1956. It’s honestly a little unclear; IMDB lists two versions of the play which both played the same year, one listed as a 90-minute “ITV Play of the Week” and one a “TV movie” at 73 minutes. Of course, the version I watched is actually 81 minutes, so that doesn’t help. The two versions appear to have identical casts and crews as nearly as I can tell, except that the “TV movie” version lists Harry Alan Towers (credited as Leonard Williams?) as a writer, along with Dennis Webb’s adaptation credit. The on-screen credits for the version I watched only list Webb, so my assumption is that it’s the one which originally played as an “ITV Play of the Week” episode, presumably on BBC, assuming, again, that IMDB is even remotely accurate about these things. Which, as it should be obvious from the conflicting information here, it is not. I think there is a possibility that both versions actually feature the same performances, and the “TV Movie” version is actually a condensed and shortened version of the same production (which might explain the additional “adaptation” credit for Towers, who may have helped cut the film or added additional dialogue to help fill in gaps created by the missing 20 minutes) but with only one version available, there’s no way to be sure.  Further confusing things is the fact that the film is frequently credited online as a 1961 production, which would put it a year later than our ostensible next entry, THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS. Digging into this a little, it appears that ‘61 is actually the U.S. debut, and the original 1956 date for the production is the correct one. Again, this is mostly speculation based on what little information is available; there’s no copyright date visible on-screen.

OK! So, for anyone still reading, I apologize for the wonkery. I think I may be the only person in history to get interested enough to write anything about this obscure and mostly unwatchable subgenre, so I feel like I owe it to future generations to document this topic as thoroughly as I can. Anyway, this one, 1956’s (?) THE ANATOMIST is very plainly based on a play, and kind of feels quite a bit older than it actually is. Part of that is the fact that its source material was already a quarter-century old by the time this adaptation rolled around, and part is probably the cheapie TV production, which does not exactly lavish the film with opulent mise-en-scène and epic setpieces. I mean, this came out in the US in 1961, the same year as THE HUSTLER, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, YOJIMBO, WEST SIDE STORY. Though the wilder pop culture of the 60’s was still a few years off, this stagey, talky melodrama must have seemed pretty stodgy and old-fashioned even when it was new, and now it's half a century old.

Not that it’s a bad thing, necessarily. The writing is witty and highly literate, and it’s delivered with acid-tongued perfection by Scottish actor Alastair Sim, best known for his classic portrayal the title character in the 1951 Christmas Carol adaptation SCROOGE. Here’s the weird thing, though: Sim isn’t playing Burke or Hare, he’s playing Dr. Knox, the surgeon who bought the bodies from them but was never (officially) implicated in the crime. THE ANATOMIST is much more about the actual anatomist of the title than it is about the ghastly murders his name is inexorably linked to. For better or for worse, this is only in passing a tale of the killers, who appear in only a few scenes and vanish totally by the ⅔ mark. Otherwise, it’s a languid series of monologues by Knox on the subject of science, and how anyone who thinks that science should stop short of, say, murder, is probably a horse’s ass.

That topic cultivates some mildly interesting philosophical rigamarole (though pretty meandering considering there’s really only one basic point to keep dancing around) but you can’t help but feel a little cheated by the movie’s focus, because it has such a great Burke and Hare duo that it seems a shame to shortchange them. As Burke you got Diarmuid Kelly, a gaunt, ghoulish and eerie presence and perhaps the most singly frightening actor to ever take on the role of one of the two killers. Kelly didn’t do a lot of other movies, and had mostly smaller roles in the ones he did (one of the pirates in Disney’s 1950 TREASURE ISLAND, for example). But he’s great here, with his dead, monotone voice and coldly soulless eyes. Nicely matching him is future Hammer Films veteran/mascot Michael Ripper, playing Hare with a wild-eyed ferocity every bit as intense as Kelly’s disturbing nonchalance. The two of them together are such a compellingly frightening team that it’s little wonder that they’re the only two faces on the DVD cover, despite their relative absence from the movie.

The story itself, though, mostly takes place far away from them. It begins with our obligatory Handsome Generic Med Student (HGMS, in this case a young George Cole, who ironically played young Scrooge in the same 1950 production Alastair Sim is known for) arguing with his fiancee (Jill Bennett, THE SHELTERING SKY) about his mentor, Dr. Knox. Fiancee is not a fan, and harangues him in the most shrill possible manner about how she thinks Dr. Knox is bad news. She’s right, of course, but her point is not that it’s probably wrong to facilitate murderous bodysnatching, but basically that science itself is inherently against God’s will and also her boyfriend should spend more time with her and less on being a medical student. Yeah, what a heel, huh? How dare he take seriously his future career as a doctor? It figures an aspiring anatomist would be interested in her, though, because her nostrils are easily already large enough to inhale a medium-sized ocean liner, and she tends to flare then when she’s angry, which in this movie is all the time. In the grainy black and white, it frequently looks like someone put two generous shotgun blasts in the center of the screen. I’m telling you, these fucking things are out of hand. No wonder she hates science so much, there’s no science I know of that can explain how her brain doesn’t just fall right out of these mammoth blowholes. It’s extremely distracting just to look at her --which would normally be a detriment to the movie-- but given how irritating a character she is, it’s actually something of a blessing.*

Anyway other than that she seems like a charming young woman.

Into this bijou domestic tablou enters Dr. Knox, ostensibly to play to the flute for the arousal of the nosey luddite’s sister, who he wants to bang (when she points out that he’s married, he’s aghast at her insensitivity to his feelings). Everyone takes this opportunity to argue with him about whether science can go too far. He says no and keeps trying to play the flute, but they always interrupt him and ask the same question again. It’s like the 500 or so episodes of The Cosby Show where Cosby just wants to eat a sandwich but people keep interrupting him to ask how come it’s OK that he hires deranged ghouls to murder streetwalkers so he can cut up their bodies in front of a crowd of gawking unwashed frat boys. (EDITOR'S NOTE: I swear that was a good joke in the context of the time I wrote it. Hasn't held up so well upon revisiting, but I'm leaving it in for historical accuracy.) 

It's obviously a pretty risky move to posit this particular story as a series of long-winded conversations on a single topic set in posh sitting rooms, and I'd be lying if I said I thought it was an enormously good idea. This is pretty dry stuff, but it’s made watchable by Sim, who plays Knox in a pretty unique way. He's a big guy --noticeably taller than anyone else around him-- and physically quite imposing. But even more than his stature, his caustic wit is so formidable that he absolutely dominates anyone who tries to argue with him. In the many subsequent versions of this story that would include comparably long arguments about if science is going too far, this film may have the most one-sided. Everyone is so outmatched by Sim --both physically and intellectually-- that he emerges as not so much an arrogant intellectual but a sadistic bully, relishing the opportunity to administer a verbal (and in one case later on, a physical) beatdown on anyone who foolishly wanders close enough. Intellectually besting and delivering blood-curdling mockery to these morons is like shooting fish in a barrel for this guy, and the zeal with which he takes to it is a bit unsettling. It's worth noting that Sim --unlike almost every other actor to take the part-- also neglects Dr. Knox's characteristic wonky eye (the real Knox was stricken with polio as a child, damaging his left eye and giving it a weird droop), which might have made him seem vulnerable or damaged; this conception of Knox needs to seem invincible and arrogant.

As in THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART, THE ANATOMIST reveals, about halfway though, that Knox is absolutely complicit in the murders. It’s something of a shock, because before that revelation, Knox is more of a hilarious cad, fitting somewhere in the venerable British tradition of bracingly witty assholes. You know, George Bernard shaw, Oscar Wilde, Dr. House. Guys whose artistic dexterity in the medium of pithy putdowns is so goddam impressive that you can’t help but like them. I mean, Knox gets all the funny lines in the first half, and like any good movie character we’re inevitably going to side with him because he’s far and away the most charismatic character in sight. But suddenly here he is, buying the corpse of a young Mary Petersen (Adrienne Corri, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, VAMPIRE CIRCUS, in a pretty small role) even as his HGMS points out that there’s no possible way this body was come by honestly. How does he respond? Thows the kid to the ground and basically tells him that murder is OK if it’s in the name of science. He cajoles, insults, threatens and intimidates into silence anyone who might be tempted to do the right thing. Holy goddam, this shit got dark all the sudden. It actually feels very much like the infamous rape scene in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED**: a tipping point, where before we might have been tempted to overlook the title character's amoral leanings in light of his cleverness and charisma, but after which there’s simply no way to defend him.

ain't I a stinker?

After that, you assume the tables are gonna turn, and this egomaniacal asshole is gonna get what’s coming to him. But somehow the movie has other ideas. Because it skips directly from this scene to the aftermath of Burke and Hare’s arrest, which has happened off-screen at some point in the recent past. Knox is not criminally implicated, but even as he tries to go on with his daily routine, he’s stalked by angry mobs out for his blood. A fitting punishment for this sociopathic bastard, right? Except somehow the movie doesn’t see it that way; Knox shows up at the house of Nostrils McGee and her sister, and instead of just condemning him for essentially putting hits on poor people, they seem very sympathetic that he’s so terribly inconvenienced by the folks that are angry with him now! Seriously, Knox offers a line or two vaguely articulating some personal vulnerability -- personal, mind you; he offers scant few regrets whatsoever about his professional role in the the murders -- and the movie seems to totally forgive him! It ends with his students fighting off the angry mob, and telling him that he’s so awesome that if he can’t make it into the school, they’ll come to him! And the movie seems to think this is a heartwarming turn! It’s like the end of DEAD POET’S SOCIETY, if Robin Williams had actually hired two seedy hitmen to murder poor people so he could cut them up in public.

Obviously, I find this ending baffling. This would not be the last time a Burke and Hare movie was inexplicably forgiving of Dr. Knox, but it is certainly the most egregious example. Most films hedge a bit on exactly how complicit the Doctor is; those that do tend to hold him up as an ambiguous figure, a conflicted guy who did the wrong thing but maybe for the right reasons. This is the only one to unambiguously demonstrate that he’s not just aware of the murders, but actively impeding the cause of justice and then not just forgive him, but give him a heartwarming ending where everyone supports him. It’s so baffling I can’t help but wonder if this was originally intended to be darkly ironic or something, and the director of this version just missed it? But there’s little evidence for that in the screenplay. Bridie gives the doctor a moment or two of regret, and then immediately starts rewarding him. And you could almost go along with it, too; Sim’s portrayal is a wondrous thing, laying subtle hints of brittle pain underneath the pushy bluster and bellicose quips and reminding you that Knox is perhaps more scared child than savage fighter. But it’s not quite enough; after his bullying, manipulating performance to scare his students out of reporting a murder, you can never quite trust him again. Whatever his personal suffering, he’s managed to dodge responsibility for his crimes and easily deserves everything he’s gotten and a whole lot more. It’s bizarre that the movie doesn’t see it that way.

As a whole, THE ANATOMIST is too stagey and plodding to be a classic, and its weird, frustratingly tone-deaf ending doesn’t help matters. But it has its moments; nestled in his endless pontificating, Knox has a bunch of funny lines (“You must know that no real lady would ever force her lover to talk about his wife! It embarasses him beyond bearing!”) and Sim plays him with grandstanding finesse. Though they’re tragically shortchanged by the screenplay, Ripper and Kelly are dynamite as Burke and Hare, for my money the best duo in the whole run of films. And if the production is not exactly a visual marvel, at least it’s nicely balanced by a script which is written with uncommon care and deftness for language. If you absolutely must enjoy a 1950’s TV movie which tacitly condones murdering the poor as a source of cheap organs for the rich, this is definitely one of the better ones. * Normally I would consider myself above mocking an actresses' physical appearance, but this is a really annoying performance and I'm feeling petty. I'm sure I'll live to regret it.

**Fittingly, I suppose, since it would be Cushing who next had a go at this character.


Burke and Hare-athon Checklist!

Title: The Anatomist (1956)

Genre: Black Comedy/Series of Monologues

Story regulars: Burke, Hare and Knox, Mary Petersen, HGMS. No Jaime, no Docherty (or any other victim; in fact, the movie is a little unclear about if anyone else has been killed).

Attitude towards Dr. Knox: Bizarrely positive, in spite of openly admitting his complicity.

Wonky eye or no? No. I should explain: the real Dr. Knox suffered from Polio as a child, and had a droopy, useless left eye. Most portrayals include this detail, but Sim does not, perhaps fearing it would make him seem vulnerable.
Scottish accents? Our HGMS has one, and a few minor characters do as well, including, for some reason, Burke and Hare. Sim, despite being Scottish himself, does not.
Irish accents? For some reason Burke and Hare sound more Scottish than Irish, though I suppose it’s kinda borderline.
Heaving cleavage? None. But if frilly dresses are your thing, Christmas just came early.
Rockin’ theme music? Almost no music.