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