The Greed of William Hart a.k.a. Horror Maniacs (1948)
Dir. Oswald Mitchell
Written by John Gilling
Starring Tod Slaughter, Henry Oscar, Arnold Bell, Aubrey Woods
The first of our cinematic adaptations of the Burke and Hare saga comes to us from 1948, a mere three years after the end of World War II. Though it was the first version to hit cinemas, it was not the first dramatization of the events; in 1931, Scottish playwright James Bridie had written a play on the subject that had been adapted for TV in 1939. But I couldn’t find a copy of that, and in fact think it likely lost (as are most of the older BBC programs, which were frequently not archived even at the time), so this remains the oldest screen version I am aware of. It certainly was not necessary to re-introduce the story to the British public, who already knew it quite well, but the film introduced the story to the cinema, and, as such, what would come to be a cinematic love affair still going strong half a century later.
This is definitely the darkest version of the story. Not in a thematic sense, but in terms of actual lighting. The whole movie appears to have been shot with a single light source, possibly a flashlight, which is beaming straight out from directly above the camera. The result is that the film has a dim halo of light in the exact center of the screen, and everything outside that light is pitched at varying levels of total blackness. I’m not sure if this was an artistic decision or if the production was paying by foot-candle or what, but it makes everything a little hard to make out. That’s OK, though, because there’s not a whole lot to see; director Oswald Mitchell and cinematographer S.D. Onions (can that possibly be a real name?!) aren’t looking to make a film of great visual splendor (in fact, the cramped sets and blocky staging make the film look much older than it actually is). Instead, they’re interested in crafting a tight little crime story, featuring early British horror star Tod Slaughter in the Hare role.
Slaughter is an actor I wasn’t familiar with before this movie, but apparently he was a pretty big deal at the time. He’s a big guy with bright eyes, an easy charisma and a pleasing inclination to go broad with his performance as the more nefarious of the two killers. I can see why he was a great choice for playing maniacs (horror maniacs?) in early screen melodramas and thrillers; despite his hangdog mug and soft-spoken shiftiness, he totally dominates every scene he’s in with an effortless theatricality that recalls Vincent Price. I guess his career declined into obscurity in the years after this movie, but I’d say he’s the genuine article, well due for a rediscovery (hopefully I’ll get a chance to check out of a few more of his films next Chainsawnukah). Besides, his name is Tod Slaughter. That’s already the most metal name ever even before you consider that “Tod” is German for “Death.” So Slaughter is cool in my book, and he’s nicely complemented by Henry Oscar (later in Hammer’s BRIDES OF DRACULA) who looks like Colm Meaney dressed like a leprechaun and serves as a good sidekick in the Burke role.
I say “Burke role” because these two ghouls aren’t actually Burke and Hare. Oh, they act like them, all right, and they have the same story, and indeed, frequently you can see the actors mouthing the words “Burke” and “Hare.” But these are definitely not them, their names are Hart and Moore, they say them aloud several times. Or at least, they started to after the British Board of Film Censors insisted that all references to the real-life killers be removed, resulting in a last-minute re-titling and re-dubbing. Intriguingly, the victims’ names have not been changed; you still have the “big three,” Mary Paterson, Daft Jamie and (an unseen) Mary Docherty appearing with their real names. IMDB claims that the added expense of re-dubbing the film left no money for music; I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it is true that there’s no music throughout most of the runtime.
Despite its trailblazing status, the script, by future Hammer writer/director John Gilling (THE REPTILE, PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES), is pretty strong, and in fact a good deal more focused than most of the later attempts would be. Gilling frames the story as essentially a crime/suspense narrative; the killers are known to us from the start, and it’s simply a question of whether our (handsome? it’s hard to tell because it’s so dark) generic medical school student (hereafter HGMS) (Patrick Addison, no other film credits) will be able to prove their guilt before it’s too late. Subsequent cinematic tellings of this tale would get bogged down in multiple unrelated characters and subplots, but the pleasing straightforwardness of this scenario --two killers pursued by suspicious HGMS-- serves to draw drama and meaning out of the basic facts in a way which sadly has yet to be repeated. The trope of having a generic handsome med student character would plague subsequent adaptations, but Gilling clearly crafts the most tolerable version of this character; he’s introduced early on and set up as an antagonist for the two killers almost immediately, giving him way more reason to exist than any other version. Ironically, the one detail of this character nearly every other version includes -- that the student recognizes the body of Mary Paterson -- does not figure into this one (maybe it was too early to include a detail this tawdry).
Aside from its unusually focused screenplay, two other factors distinguish this story. First, it contains what is certainly the most negative portrayal of Dr. Knox (“Dr. Cox” here, thanks Censors, for protecting the kids). Nearly every other version presents him as a ambiguous, conflicted character, but this one shows him as a calculating and complicit co-conspirator, perfectly aware of what the two killers are up to and actively working to hinder any investigation into their misdeeds. He even gets an earful about it from our HGMS, though his ultimate fate is left unknown. The other odd wrinkle here is the film’s unusual focus on Daft Jamie. Here played by rising star Aubrey Woods (in only his second role, though he would go on to a long career on stage and screen, most notably as the candy shop owner who sings “The Candy Man” in WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY), Jamie gets a ton of screen time and boy, does he just say the darndest things, like, all the time. He’s all over this thing and he has most of the best lines, so the prospect of his death is actually enough to introduce a little real suspense. Gilling obviously sees the dark humor in all this grim absurdity, and through Jamie's deceptively innocent quips, he pulls a thread of black comedy into the mix, a trend which found its way into a few subsequent adaptations as well. But Gilling was there first, and he did it more elegantly than those that followed.
THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART isn’t exactly a lost classic or anything -- much of the staging is ugly and awkward, and even with a slim runtime (the version I saw is only a hair over an hour, though supposedly a 79 minute version exists) it’s fatty and given to voluble excess, with way too much exposition for such a simple story. But in the ignoble history of Burke and Hare films its relatively streamlined narrative and handful of ingratiating performances make it easily among the better ones. This one at least seems to know what it was trying to do, even if it doesn’t necessarily do it all that well. Recommended for any filmgoer who likes stagey old films about murder that look like they were shot with the flashlight from Doom 3.
OUR STORY SO FAR:
1956: The Anatomist
1960: The Flesh and the Fiends
1972: Burke and Hare2010: Burke and Hare