Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Burke and Hare-athon Part VII: Burke and Hare (2010)

Burke and Hare (2010)
Dir. John Landis
Written by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft
Starring Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry

The year was 2010. It had been 25 years since anyone attempted a Burke and Hare film following the critical and commercial failure of THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS way back in 1985. That’s the longest gap between attempts ever on record since the first film version in 1948, and nearly twice as long as the second longest gap, the 13-year downtime between the previous two efforts. It had also been 18 years since director John Landis’s last movie, the indifferently-received SUSAN’S PLAN from 1998, and since that time he’d seemed perfectly content (perhaps even obnoxiously so) giving Slash a run for his money as “that documentary whore guy” who appears in every single retrospective about anyone even remotely famous during his lifetime. We all figured he was just biding his time, waiting around Hollywood for the suits to run out of 70’s TV shows to re-”imagine” and approach him for BLUES BROTHERS 3: ELECTRIC BLUEGALOO with a briefcase full of money and a wheelbarrow full of cocaine. But I dunno, someone must have fed him after midnight or something because in 2010, without warning, BURKE AND HARE suddenly appeared.

Well, “appeared” might be overselling it somewhat. It snuck in and out of theaters in the US in 2011 with a laughable 4,833 dollars, or the approximate value of four fresh bodies delivered to Dr. Knox in 1828. Last weekend alone, JURASSIC WORLD made an average of $47,871per location. The result of this is that I didn’t hear about this film until 2014, when it unceremoniously appeared on Netflix, and didn’t realize it was directed by Landis until I watched the opening titles. “How,” I wondered aloud, “is it possible that John Landis made a new black comedy with Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, plus a whole raft of delightful cameos (the now dear-departed Christopher Lee, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON’S Jenny Agutter, DEATH WISH director Michael Winner for some reason, Ricky Gervais sidekick Stephen Merchant, Ray Harryhausen) and yet, it never hit my radar? And man, why do I feel like I asked almost that exact same question somewhere else recently?

Well, it turns out once again there’s a pretty good reason this one never soared to epic heights. But at least it’s a different reason than the last few failures. Hey, progress!

Are you not entertained!?

On paper, the idea of having Landis take on the Burke and Hare story as a black comedy seems a good one. Landis is, of course, responsible for what many justifiably contend is the best horror-comedy of all time (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS LONDON), and has an unusually deft hand for successfully interweaving genuine genre thrills (monsters in WEREWOLF, car chases in BLUES BROTHERS, tits in ANIMAL HOUSE) with sharp-witted but good-natured comedy. And of course, this would hardly be the first film to inject a streak of sadistic laffs into this grim true story; in fact, though only 1972’s BURKE AND HARE is (arguably) a straight comedy, pretty much every iteration of this tale has at least a sprinkling of bruising wit, usually courtesy of the caustic Dr. Knox. That Landis decided to shoot the film at Ealing Studios --known for classic black comedies like KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS and THE LADYKILLERS-- spoke to his aspirations and would have given me a lot of hope in the project if I’d ever heard about it beforehand. Everything seemed set up for a merciless, coal-black autopsy of this darkly absurd true story.

So what goes wrong? Well, nothing, at first. The film begins with an assured long tracking shot across an elaborately staged Edinburgh marketplace, as impressive a bit of filmmaking as anything in any of the preceding movies. There’s a semi-awkward bit of expository narration, but it quickly disappears and it ends in a pretty funny sequence with an angry old lady being hanged and carted off for medical experimentation, so I’m on board. But the problems begin when we reach our Burke and Hare, here played by Pegg and Serkis, respectively. No, it’s not that they’re bad actors or anything; they both have impeccable timing and a respectable (though by no means overwhelming) chemistry. Here’s the problem: they’re really nice.

That is the issue, and it’s a surprisingly fundamental one which dooms the production from the get-go. For a jokey comedy about serial killers, but it’s just too nice. It’s a black comedy, but it can’t quite bring itself to really go for the throat the way it needs to in order to make this work. It feels tame and accommodating and eager to please, but it’s telling a story which is simply too dark to apologize away. The plot is pretty black, but the comedy is not -- it’s cheerful and ingratiating. The style of humor undercuts the material, and not in an interesting or subversive way, more like a way which seems fundamentally uncomfortable with the actual premise. John Gilling, Dylan Thomas and James Bridie approached the humor in this concept with a mordant, sardonic wit that belied the coldy nihilistic world the characters populated. Here writers Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft favor bawdy slapstick and geeky historical references, relying on the cast --especially Pegg as Burke-- to not just be funny but likeable. The entire movie’s conflict is based around Burke’s desperate desire to prove his love to a misguided actress (Isla Fisher) and you’re supposed to sympathize with him! Yes, this is the first movie to believe that the appropriate story structure for this tale of greed and murder is a goddam romantic comedy.

A rare photo of the reclusive grave gopher.

Even with that misguided premise, there might have been a way to save the concept by turning it into a wicked meta-joke, a leering undermining of the hoary old romantic comedy trope by casually revealing its main characters to be monsters. But BURKE AND HARE (2010) can’t seem to bring itself to do that. It wants us to like its protagonists --or at least Burke-- and root for them to succeed, and that’s precisely the way it organized its central conflict. But how to make us root for these two vicious, greedy serial killers? Well, there’s not really a way, but they way they attempt is to minimize everything. There’s no way to entirely erase the fact that Burke and Hare are killers, but they do everything they can to make it more palatable. They start by making Burke a hesitant participant in everything; Hare keeps egging him on and reminding him he’s “doing it for love” as he unforgivably phrases it once he’s caught, and he keeps complaining and trying to back out without ever quite doing it. The movie seems to take the stance that this makes it somehow less his fault, and it tries to tidy things up by making sure that most of the murders it shows us either aren’t strictly his fault (one man has a heart attack and dies upon seeing them, for example, another is basically self-defense) or simply happen off-screen. That failing, it adopts a wacky madcap comedy tone during the murders, so that Burke and Hare banter back and forth ceaselessly while they’re bloodlessly doing someone in and the focus is on them, not the murder. Not a single victim is portrayed sympathetically, and most are never introduced at all prior to the advent of their death. We’re even provided a rogue’s gallery of villains (the smug Dr. Monro, a group of bullying gangsters), in an attempt to turn the these killers here into relatable underdogs!

Now, I don’t object to this on moral grounds, obviously. Someone who subjected the public to 19,000 words on the cinematic oeuvre of Burke and Hare is probably in no position to be making moral arguments of any kind, and hey, it’s not like this is the first time one of these adaptations has had an inexplicable sympathetic tendency towards one of its obvious villains (though they usually reserves that honor for Knox, not the actual murderers). But the problem here is that in order to even make a gesture towards Burke and Hare being anything less than utter monsters, the film has to soft-pedal their actual role as cold-blooded psychopaths as much as it possibly can. In other words, it has to avoid, as much as possible, the only actual point of telling this story. If these two guys are basically nice dudes and the whole killing spree is sort of wacky and incidental, then who cares? The only interesting thing about this whole pathetic saga, and the only reason anyone would ever bother remembering this minor historical anecdote, much less making a major motion picture about it, is because of the murders! But the filmmakers here are committed to this idea of Burke and Hare as loveable rascals, so they can’t possibly dwell on that fact.

You would be forgiven, then, for wondering how exactly a Burke and Hare movie can be made if the single, solitary point of interest is minimized in every imaginable way. Well friends, the answer is: subplots. Most of the screen time is taken up with Burke’s ill-conceived efforts to help his would-be beau (who ices him out at every turn, even as he showers money on her, haha?) stage an all-female version of MacBeth, Hare’s shenanigans with his alcoholic wife and desire to start a funeral parlor, Dr. Knox’s competition with antiquated fellow surgeon Dr. Monro (Tim Curry, marking the only appearance of the historical Dr. Monro in any screen adaptation) and his dream of using the brand-new medium of photography to make dissection unnecessary, a comically incompetent militia’s efforts to protect the dead from grave robbers, and a local underworld figure’s interest in getting in on Burke and Hare’s action. You’ll notice that not a single one of those stories actually has any meaningful connection to the historical Burke and Hare, but they’re the movies’ main interest and the biggest chunk of the runtime. Meanwhile, actual Burke and Hare staples like Daft Jamie, Mary Paterson and the Gray family are conspicuously absent.*

A great feet of science

Which begs the question: why make a Burke and Hare movie at all if you’re uncomfortable with the basic elements of the story and are more interested in crafting a zany historical rom-com? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question, but I must admit that whatever the reason, it’s not a complete waste. As ill-conceived as this whole enterprise is, it has plenty of legitimate chuckles and a handful of real laughs. Still, there’s no avoiding the fact that the script feels pretty half-baked. There are a smattering of clever historical allusions (the film is the first Burke and Hare adaptation to include a young Charles Darwin as a side character, and we’re also introduced to Dr. Lister [of Listerine fame], Greyfriars Bobby [the dog who in famously guarded his dead owner’s grave for 14 years], Nicéphore Niépce [often credited as the inventor of photography], and poet William Wordsworth) but let’s be honest, it’s not exactly a masterpiece of classical wit. There are more sex jokes than history jokes, and frankly, too few of either. The script is needlessly plotty and expository and the jokes tend to be either broad slapstick or dry historical references. A lot of the heavy lifting is left to the cast.

It’s a charming cast, obviously, so they’re more than capable of entertaining even with material which isn’t quite there. There is not a role ever imagined that Simon Pegg can’t make watchable, I think if you cast him in the John Huston role in CHINATOWN we’d still think he was a loveable scamp. Serkis (a last-minute replacement for David Tennant) is a capable enough actor, though maybe a little lacking in magnetism to play a lead role like this. Wilkinson is always a solid addition to any movie, though his character as written is too broad to be the complicated, contradictory Knox of other films but not funny enough to justify his over-large screen time. Curry is a delight as always, but mostly wasted on a one-note foot fetish joke. Isla Fisher gets some laughs as a ferociously overacting female MacBeth,** but is also stranded in a weird, unmotivated and frankly kind of unlikable character who exists purely as an object for our male lead to win over. The movie never even makes a gesture towards giving her any kind of consistent motivation or characterization, which frankly is kind of emblematic of the problems here -- more than perhaps any other Burke and Hare movie, this one seems completely blind to any psychological examination. Characters just do the things the movie needs for them to do at that particular moment, and as a result it all feels rather incidental.

People will totally be invested in our unearned romance, cheers to that!

So the film is well-cast, the production is handsome, the editing is energetic and it’s reasonably entertaining all the way through, which already puts it ahead of much of the cinematic competition. It’s not a disaster by any means, but I dunno, somehow it feels like this should all add up to more than it does. It never quite overcomes its reticence to directly address what terrible, terrible people these guys are, which is especially a problem for the unnecessarily protracted ending where it tries to get all serious about how sad it is that Burke’s going to be executed. At the film’s very end, the narrator returns to remind us, “I know he seemed like a nice guy and all that. And I suppose you have to respect the the made the ultimate sacrifice for love. But he did kill all those people just for money. And that’s just evil!” -- a sentiment which is appreciated since it’s the film’s only acknowledgement of the fact. Obviously it might have been better had that idea been conveyed by the story and not just tacked on as a postscript, but at least it’s in there. Problem is, though, that while I can only speak for myself, I didn’t have to be reminded that killing people for money is evil. It’s obvious all along, and the film’s apparent belief that we’ll be sad to see this “nice guy” who “made the ultimate sacrifice for love” get hanged is a perfect metaphor for its bizarre dissociative break with the actual reality of the story it’s telling. Nice guys do not go on serial murdering rampages so they can afford to buy the affections of hot women, not even in black comedies. The film needs him to be both a nice guy and a serial killer for this to work, and it simply fails to reconcile those two ends in any meaningful way, or, hell, even address them outside that single line of dialogue at the end. There’s simply no satisfactory way of explaining how Burke, as portrayed in the movie, ended up as a cold-blooded killer. As entertaining as the movie can be at times, this is a pretty damning flaw, and ensures that while it may generate a few chuckles, there’s no way to connect with the characters or the story on a deeper level. Comedy, and dark comedy in particular, is usually only going to be as potent as it is accurate, and alas, 2010’s BURKE AND HARE simply has very little to actually say about the real world.

As an addition to the Burke and Hare pantheon, it’s kind of an odd-man-out. Obviously, it’s a pretty major change to make Burke and Hare the good guys, but there’s actually a lot of the movie which deviates from the templates created by THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS/THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART (depending on which one you want to credit as the first to use the story structure pioneered in Thomas’s screenplay but first depicted on-screen by Gilling) which has totally dominated the way this story has been told for decades. Most notable, perhaps, is the total lack of any Handsome Generic Med Student. This ahistorical character has been a central organizing point for every single Burke and Hare adaptation, and arguably represents the most obvious audience surrogate here, a moral character who can identify with Dr. Knox’s desire to push the boundaries of knowledge but who also has a stronger link to humanity. And because it’s through this character that we often meet Burke and Hare’s victims (Daft Jamie and --especially-- Mary Paterson) they too are neatly excised from this version. With no victims to sympathize with and no character to dramatize and embody that sympathy, the movie’s conflict has to arise from other sources, and so it gives Burke and Hare made-up personal goals and uses the ahistorical subplot about anatomical photography to make Dr. Knox’s endgame a little more concrete than the usual “I have to teach the next generation of med students.” It’s an interesting idea, and one that I think could make a legitimate good movie someday when someone comes along who has the balls to make Burke and Hare the central characters without trying to sugarcoat what awful, dismal people they were. Here, though, it doesn’t work out any better than the fragmented usual template does; stranded of any psychological motivation, the conflicts here seem arbitrary and trivial, and the most interesting aspects of the plot are maddeningly ignored.

There is one bit of noteworthy trivia, however: Christopher Lee plays the oft-neglected first (or possibly second) Burke and Hare victim, “Joseph the Miller” (though for whatever reason the movie erroneously indicates that he was actually a soldier). He doesn’t get a ton to do except lie there, but his presence is interesting, because of course Lee played the Burke and Hare amalgam “Resurrection Joe”*** in the Boris-Karloff-starring CORRIDORS OF BLOOD in 1958. But it gets even better, because Karloff himself played another Burke and Hare amalgam in the classic Robert Wise Burke and Hare story/sequel THE BODYSNATCHER thirteen years prior in 1945. So you’ve got three generations of Burke and Hare here, spanning a tumultuous 65 years. In those many years, across many decades and eras of filmmaking, it seems like no one has quite managed to figure out how the story mechanics should work, but at least BURKE AND HARE (2010) represents a fresh start, a genuine try for something new. It doesn’t quite work, but hey, at least that keeps it part of what is now quite a venerable tradition.

*They’re mentioned in the dialogue when a list of victims is read, but not seen
**Though as over-the-top as she is, it’s kinda an over-the-top part so she’s probably not really overdoing it more than plenty of other, non-comedy actors who have come before her. The idea of an all-female MacBeth turns out to be funnier in concept than in practice, since at the end of the day there’s really only one joke there, and that is that it’s a female Macbeth. And what’s the deal with the audience reaction? Everything about this concept is laughable, but then for completely unexplained reasons it turns out to be a huge success, an absolutely unearned turn of events which exists solely due to the script’s dramatic need for it. Pretty lazy.

***Hold on a minute while I go legally change my name.

2010: Burke and Hare

Burke and Hare-athon Checklist!

  • Title: Burke and Hare (2010)
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Story regulars: Burke, Hare, Knox. No appearance from HGSM, Mary Paterson, Daft Jamie, Mrs. Docherty. First appearance of Dr. Monro.
  • Attitude towards Dr. Knox: Mostly positive. He gets a pretty happy ending.
  • Wonky eye or no? None.
  • Scottish accents? Quite a few of the myriad of character actors here go for one, though no one in the main cast except Isla Fisher.
  • Irish accents? I think both Pegg and Serkis are trying, though they’re kinda spotty IMHO.
  • Heaving cleavage? None.
  • Rockin’ theme music? The opening is set to bagpipes, a nice reminder of the Scottish milieu. The film ends, inexplicably, with Scottish pop rock staple “500 Miles” by the Proclaimers. Don’t ask me why, but at least it’s Scottish.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Burke and Hare-athon Part VI: The Doctor and the Devils

The Doctor and the Devils (1985)
Dir. Freddie Francis
Written by Sir Ronald Harwood, based on a screenplay by Dylan Thomas?!
Starring Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Rea, Julian Sands, Twiggy, Patrick Stewart

Another decade, another Burke and Hare adaptation. You’d be forgiven for being a little jaded by this point. Ho hum, another swing, another miss. OK, it probably can’t be as ill-conceived as 1972’s BURKE AND HARE, but then again it probably won’t have a theme song as kickin’, either. How are we supposed to get excited about this?

Well, I’ll fuckin’ tell you how. Credentials. Up til this point, Burke and Hare pictures had been a thoroughly scrappy, B-list affair. Even the inarguable best of the bunch -- 1960’s THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS-- was released by underdog Hammer knock-off Triad Pictures and had to cost about 100 bucks plus bus fare for Peter Cushing. But with THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS, Burke and Hare made the jump to the mainstream. Distributed by 20th Century Fox, produced by Mel Brook’s film company Brookfilms (which also produced such classics as David Cronenberg’s THE FLY, David Lynch’s ELEPHANT MAN, and the Frances Farmer biopic FRANCES) and Brooksfilms (and later Cruise/Wagner) company man Jonathan Sanger (FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR, THE PRODUCERS, VANILLA SKY) and directed by horror veteran Freddie Francis (a wildly uneven career which ranged from the delightful NIGHTMARE and TALES FROM THE CRYPT to the incompetent EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN to the abysmal DEADLY BEES), the behind-the-scenes talent easily eclipses anything that came before. And look at that cast! Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Rea, Julian Sands, Twiggy, Patrick Stewart! Fuckin Twiggy! And then you’ve got a script by Sir Ronald Harwood (CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY, THE PIANIST, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY). Based on a screenplay by Dylan fuckin ‘Thomas. I mean, good lord, what’s next, was it scored by the Beatles with special guest Elvis?

So now we gotta ask that dreaded question: why haven’t I heard of this before now? As we’ve discussed extensively on this blog in the past, any movie which has an amazing cast and crew and yet you’ve never heard of it should be approached with a caution usually reserved for disarming a bomb at the beginning of a movie when you know they have to blow someone up to demonstrate the stakes. If this movie was even halfway watchable, they should have been able to sell it pimping Dylan’s Thomas’s name all by itself, right? I mean, hell, I’ve watched whole DTV sequels just because Julian Sands was in them. And now you’re telling me he’s in this classy movie with all these great stars and a script adapted by a “sir” from one of the acknowledged great English-language authors of the 20th century and not only have I never seen it, nobody ever even mentioned it to me? This stinks, Lou. It stinks to high heaven. Movies like this don’t just slip through the cracks. They’re willfully buried.

Well, if you think that, I can’t say I care much for your cynicism, but of course you’re correct. This movie doesn’t really work at all. Or, as Roger Ebert put it: "It is impossible to discover, on the evidence of The Doctor and the Devils, why anybody connected with this movie thought it should be made. It is unredeemed, dreary, boring, gloomy dreck unilluminated by even the slightest fugitive moment of inspiration or ambition." That’s probably a little harsh, but it’s not entirely unwarranted, either. There’s a lot of good ingredients here, but perhaps more than any other version of this story, they simply don’t add up to anything coherent. You really do get the feeling that no one here was on the same page about what kind of movie they were making.  The ingredients all taste good individually, but put together they don’t actually add up to an actual entree. Or even tapas. More like some kind of chunky, gray slop. Still, they’re exotic enough ingredients that they make for a memorable meal, if not a satisfying one. That’s something. Also, anyone else hungry?

Because of the extremely vague nature of the movie it’s hard to know where to start in deconstructing it. Whose vision is this anyway, primarily? Director Francis? Executive producer and Brooksfilm head Mel Brooks? Producer Jonathan Sanger? Thomas and his faithful translator Harwood? None of these possibilities particularly assert themselves, but we have to start somewhere, so let’s start with Francis. The director was 68 at the time --no spring chicken, though still a long way from retirement (he died in 2007)-- but his checkered career as a film director was already more than a decade behind him. His last film had been the ultra-low-budget Tyburn production THE GHOUL in 1975, and since that time he had seemed content to return to his first career as a cinematographer, having shot THE ELEPHANT MAN in 1980 and DUNE in 1985, among others.* But bringing him out of his apparent retirement from directing feature films to helm a Burke and Hare movie results in something rather interesting, something wholly unexpected which in retrospect was actually entirely predictable: the very last Hammer movie.

And really, of course that’s what he would make. Francis was a regular go-to guy for Hammer (and rival Amicus) during the heydey of British gothic horror. His last film coincided nicely with the end of that era; Hammer would eke out one more horror flick (TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER) in 1976, one last thriller (an Elliott Gould-starring remake of THE LADY VANISHES) in 1979 and close its doors by the early 80s. Most of its regular directors, writers and producers --Terence Fisher, John Gilling, Val Guest, Michael Carreras, Anthony Hinds, Seth Holt, Jimmy Sangster -- wound down their careers about the same time. Tigon and a few of Hammer’s low-rent competitors would limp into the early 80s, but the era of British horror was well and truly over, subsumed first by a wave of exploitive Italian giallos in the 70’s and subsequently a wave of gimmicky American slashers in the 80's. I mean, this was 1985. Let’s look at the other horror movies that year: FRIDAY THE 13th: A NEW BEGINNING. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE (a.k.a. the gay one). HOWLING 2: YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. RE-ANIMATOR. FRIGHT NIGHT. For better or worse, the world of horror cinema that Francis returned to after a decade’s absence was not at all the one which he left.

You wouldn’t know that from THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS, though, which is in every conceivable way an archetypical Hammer production. From its grimy 19th-century street sets to its plush, opulent drawing rooms; from its melodramatic score to its unflashy but sharp cinematography; from its bland leads to its wealth of excellent character actors; from its literate monologues to its shocking but mostly bloodless brutality, from its surplus of medium shots to its characters' tendency to speechify, it’s about as recognizably 60’s British horror as they come. Except for a few unmistakable technical improvements (sharper film stock, more realism in acting, lighting and set design) you could probably show this as a double bill with CAPTAIN CLEGG (1962) or something and never realize they were filmed twenty years apart. The vibe is unmistakably, classically Hammer.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing for fans of British gothic horror, of course; it’s almost like we got a little window into a parallel universe where the subgenre got to continue into the modern filmmaking era. For all its similarities with those older films, there’s something curious about watching a whole new generation of actors go through the same motions. The staginess and theatricality of the 60’s acting had long since been replaced by a much greater focus on realism, and it gives the whole enterprise a rawness which adds an interesting dimension. But despite its appeal as a unique cultural artifact, it’s innate Hammer-ness is also a bad thing in that the same problems that plague a lot of the classic Hammer films persist here: slow pace, a tendency towards chatty pontificating in posh sitting rooms, a weakness for bland pretty-boy male leads, a lack of major setpieces, a hazy directionlessness of plot. While the thing looks pretty, it’s laughably slow-moving, meandering, and short on cheap thrills by the standards of 1985. Beyond that, the realism of the acting doesn’t necessarily jibe very well with the witty, overwrought prose of the screenplay and a lot of the time the actors seem a little lost with it, confused how to turn this obviously stagey melodrama into something believable. Francis does them no favors by stubbornly sticking to the medium shots that dominated cinema of an earlier era; this new generation of actors thrive on realism and subtlety, which tends to take place in closeup and subjective shots. Stuck as a little head in the middle of a big frame, their chief tool to depict the characters’ inner lives is stunted. The styles don’t mesh. I don’t know if, for example, the dear departed Christopher Lee was a better actor than Jonathan Pryce. But his oversized personality and thundering theatricality would have given a lot more definition to the Burke role than Pryce’s spastic oddness does, when seen through Francis’s handsome but clinical framings. Simply put, the script, direction, and performances are all out of sync with each other by decades, and none of them is quite strong enough to take the lead and give the movie some much-needed definition.  

The actors themselves are an obviously talented lot, of course. Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea as Burke and Hare (here re-named “Fallon and Broom”) give unhinged, manic performances as the degenerate, raging alcoholic murders. There’s a frenzied, almost animalistic quality to their portrayal (particularly for Pryce, whose thick furry coat and wild shock of jet black hair conjures the image of a wild-eyed neanderthal) which makes for a unique take, but ultimately doesn’t really offer much meaningful about who these men actually are and how they got this way. Julian Sands does about as well as can be expected with his thankless HGMS role; it feels in some ways like the quintessential version of this character, combining all the important plot elements (his veneration of Dr. Knox, his love for the beautiful local prostitute, his increasing suspicion of Burke and Hare, his discovery of the prostitute’s body and subsequent part in unveiling the crimes) and dumping everything else. Twiggy, as said prostitute (here renamed Jennie Bailey instead of Mary Paterson) is at least likable, though her character is mostly a passive victim and lacks the fire of Billie Whitlaw’s take on the character in FLESH AND THE FIENDS. A whole host of excellent character actors --T.P. McKenna, Patrick Stewart, Sian Phillips, Beryl Reid-- do fine work as various colorful locals, though only McKenna and a merry Reid get anything particularly juicy to work with. Timothy Dalton as Dr. Knox --here renamed Dr. Rock**-- is really the only weak link. He’s not awful by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s pretty stiff and opaque in a role which requires a little more nuance if it’s going to work at all. He’s saddled with much more of Thomas’s original dialogue than anyone else gets, which on one hand offers a ton of great lines, but on the other hand was, again, written in the 40’s for a very different generation of actors, producers, and filmgoers. If there was an actor in 1985 who could have bridged that gap, Dalton unfortunately isn’t him.

On the subject of that script: it seems that Thomas wrote it during WWII, when he was rejected for active service due to ill health and churning out as much writing as possible to put food on the table. That puts it ahead of John Gilling’s 1948 script for THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART, but still second to James Bridie’s The Anatomist, which had already been produced as both a play and a TV movie prior to Thomas’ take on the material. Thomas was quite familiar with Bridie’s play (he wrote in a letter that he had renamed Dr. Knox “Dr. Rock” in an effort to “satisfy Bridie’s complaint” and create a character with a name that “sound[s] like the name of a man who could be very distinguished and great in science,”) so there’s no doubt that it had some influence on him. Like Bridie, Thomas casts “Dr. Rock” as arguably the central character, but in structure his screenplay has a surprising amount in common with Gilling’s THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS. The way Thomas’s script juggles and balances the perspectives of Knox, HGMS, and Burke and Hare is startlingly similar, and seriously makes me wonder if Gilling had in fact read the Thomas screenplay himself (it was published in 1953, so it would be possible). A lot of Dr. Knox’s character arc seems very similar (especially in that the story both starts and ends with him) and Burke and Hare’s slide from drunken assholes to bodysnatchers to cold-blooded killers is handled pretty similarly too. Just like Gilling’s version, This version also imagines that one of the two killers ends up going a little murder-crazy (in this case, Pryce’s Burke substitute rather than Donald Pleasance’s Hare; Rea’s Hare substitute, it turns out, is more closely related to the 1972 version’s oddly reticent killer.)*** Thomas also beat Gilling to the idea of a Handsome Generic Med Student who becomes suspicious and finally discovers his prostitute girlfriend on the dissection table.

The key difference between the two isn’t really in content, but in tone. The Thomas script (understandably, given it was written in the 40’s) downplays the murder scenes, never actually depicting any of them and relying purely on suggestion to provoke any horror. But it’s also a lot darker and more depressing than Gilling’s blackly comic nightmare. You can picture this working in a well-done Universal horror film; there’s lots of scenes where someone will suddenly find themselves trapped with the murderous pair, and the camera is described as cutting to their eyes as they suddenly become frightened, and the scene ends with a scream. Some nice hard lighting and scary music would have made that work, definitely. But really, Thomas’s screenplay is less a horror movie and more of a despairing drama about the horrors of grinding poverty and the self-implosion of good people trying to shake up an inhuman system.

Thomas’s script describes in vivid detail the brutal conditions of life for the poor: the town square is described as, “...crowded with stalls, stalls that sell rags and bones, kept by rags and bones.” “Dr. Rock” himself summarizes the pathetic everyday horror of the streets, calling out some stuffy dinner party guests who praise the city’s erudition with a lengthy admonition about what life really is for most common people:  “[this city is] the bowels of squalor. Look any night at the streets of this “cultured city’. Observe, with academic calm, the homeless and the hopeless and the insane and the wretchedly drunken lying in their rags on the stinking cobbles. Look for yourselves, sirs, at the beggars, and the cripples, and the tainted children, and the pitiful, doomed girls. Write a scholastic pamphlet on the things that prowl in the alleys, afraid to see the light; they were men and women once.”

Alcohol is a major factor here -- as, of course, it was in Thomas’s own life. In a life this desperately grueling, alcohol isn’t just a luxury, it’s the only way out of a miserable existence, a way to get a few short hours of blessed forgetfulness. The role of the bar in all this, and the role of the ever-present flasks of gin, are not just as icons of debasement but as emblems of the unrelenting horror of reality. In real life, of course, alcohol probably played an extremely central role in the murders themselves; not only did Burke and Hare usually incapacitate their victims with whisky before doing them in, but they themselves seem to have been in an almost perpetual state of intoxication. As Burke put it after they’d been caught, they were "generally in a state of intoxication" when the murders were carried out, and that he "could not sleep at night without a bottle of whisky by his bedside, and a twopenny candle to burn all night beside him; when he awoke he would take a draught of the bottle—sometimes half a bottle at a draught—and that would make him sleep"

To the film’s credit, Francis retains a lot of Thomas’s emphasis on the gritty reality of life in this era, even preserving much of the above speech by Dr. Rock. The production design is layered with filth and decay, and Pryce and Rea absolutely sell their characters as debilitated, mad-dog drunks desperate for even a taste of sweet, sweet booze. There’s an equal-parts hilarious/disturbing scene later on in the movie when Rea finds his wife with gin on her breath, and slaps her until she gives up her hidden bottle and then straight up growls at her when she tries to take it back (it’s not in the Thomas version, but I like it). Alas, fidelity isn’t quite the same thing as comprehension. The movie faithfully depicts a lot of the world Thomas so vividly describes, but something gets lost in the translation and it doesn’t end up conveying the same meaning.

I’ve read that when Brooks first purchased the rights to the Thomas screenplay, he really only wanted to use the title, and it was Francis who suggested they use as much of the original script as possible. You gotta respect that, but Francis was always more of a gifted visualist than he was an actor’s director, and while his direction captures the details of Thomas’s darkly imagined world, it lacks the obvious empathy of Thomas’s voice. It’s more matter-of-fact, which in some ways kinda loses the point, and ends up just seeming gritty and depressing for its own sake. Certainly, “Fallon” and “Broom” don’t come off as particularly sympathetic in Thomas’s words either, but his focus on the broken systems of the time makes them seem like a symptom of a larger problem. It gives their actions some context, explores how desperation turns simple assholes into genuine monsters. In the film, that idea doesn’t quite come across. Rock still gets to make his speech about the poor, but the movie itself seems to take no particular stance on any of the actual themes in Thomas’s play, making it seem more like a simple crime dramatization than a pained social commentary.

Part of that is probably because although the script retains a lot of Thomas’s original dialogue (particularly for Dr. Rock), there are quite a few changes, too. Most notably, the film abandons Thomas’s idea of implied horror and lets us explicitly see the murder scenes. OK, fair, enough, you gotta figure that’s par for the course for horror movies in the 80’s, and to his credit adapter Roland Harwood crafts these scenes finely enough that they blend rather seamlessly with Thomas’s dialogue. But Thomas was, if nothing else, a diligent wordsmith crafting a specific piece of work, and mashing it up with a different movie subtly dilutes its focus.

Dramatizing the murders, of course, changes Fallon and Broom’s characters quite a bit; Harwood actually adds the interesting detail that they’ve been orderlies during an unnamed war, and may have ended up a little mentally unbalanced for it, but he also leaves out one of Thomas’s best scenes, where a drunken Fallon, shaken by the horror of his deeds, blames his hands for the murders. Leaving less implied and more directly seen about the killers creates a few curious details, but also kind of diminishes them, makes them seem more tangible and less nightmarish. Perhaps this was inevitable in trying to adapt such an old script to the modern era, but even Dr. Rock, who survives the adaptation with the majority of Thomas’s original dialogue intact, drifts --quietly, perhaps even imperceptibly-- away from his original meaning. Harwood’s take on Thomas’s words sometimes wanders away from the original altogether (especially towards the end), but more often simply reshapes them in ways which seem trivial at first, but over the course of the whole movie make a bigger difference.

In an early scene of Thomas’s play, for example, the doctor announces himself during a lecture as a “Material man” (emphasis Thomas’s) for “whom of the soul, because it has no shape, does not exist,” but then goes on to say, “but paradox is inherent in all dogma, and so I stand before you also as a man of sentiment, of spiritual aspirations, of intellectually creative impulses, social convictions, moral passions.” Harwood keeps the part about the soul, but cuts the doctor off at “man of sentiment.” It’s a small change, but it also diminishes the doctor, plays down the richness of his complicated, contradictory mind.  Likewise, both lectures end with: “The noble profession.. [of anatomy] is not an end in itself. The science of anatomy contributes to the great sum of all knowledge. And I believe that all men must work towards that end. And I believe that end justifies any means.” Thomas even emphasizes the point with a second, even more sinister line: “let no scruples stand in the way of the progress of medical science!” Sounds pretty bad, but he also includes a few lines before that which the movie leaves out:  “The noble profession.. [of anatomy] is not an end in itself. The science of anatomy contributes to the great sum of all knowledge, which is the Truth: the whole truth of the life of man on this turning Earth… for I believe that all men can be happy and the good life can be lived on this earth. And I believe that all men must work towards that end. And I believe that end justifies any means...” Suddenly doesn’t sound quite as diabolical, does it?

Thomas’s doctor is probably the most interesting version of the character ever written -- he contains plenty of the bracingly caustic wit that defines Bridie and Gilling’s take, but is also shown to be far more empathetic and human than those other version allow for. We learn that Rock doesn’t just take issue with the backwards medical establishment, but the whole damn system. He’s a thoroughly modern man trapped in a world just barely lurching out of the dark ages, and it’s driving him mad. He’s an heir to wealth, but has married below his station, to much public scandal and professional isolation (even his spinster sister [Sian Phillips, BBC’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and, uh, EWOKS: BATTLE FOR ENDOR] can barely contain her contempt for his refusal to play the mannered aristocrat). Likewise, he appears to be the only person around who is suitably outraged by the horrifying conditions of the poor; where everyone else just accepts “the way things are,” Rock simply refuses. We see him giving charity to the poor (the movie’s “Daft Jamie” character, here given the punk-as-fuck pseudonym “Billy Bedlam,” in what I believe is the only instance of the character’s on-screen survival****), we see him inspiring students with his lectures, we see him mentoring Julian Sands’s HGMS character, see him being a devoted husband and caring brother. It’s the only film adaptation where the good Doctor’s claim that he’s doing all this for the greater good honestly seems like it might have some real evidence to back it up. But alas, it’s his single-mindedness in pursuit of a better world that ends letting him rationalize away his conscience. Neither Dalton’s stiff portrayal nor Francis’s literal direction makes much of this, but the dialogue is certainly there. It’s somewhat mordantly interesting to see a movie retain so much of the original writing and yet somehow totally lose its fundamental meaning. Reading it on the page, Rock’s bitter exchanges with his sister and tender moments with his wife make a lot more sense than they do on the screen; the words are the same in many cases, but the movie doesn’t quite seem to understand what they’re doing there, they feel on-screen like arbitrary and baffling diversions from the actual story, rather than the intrinsically important thematic elements they were obviously written to be.

So Thomas makes the doctor a better lead character, true. But alas, he still can’t quite overcome the problem of agency inherent in this story. Francis may be to blame for failing to bring Thomas’s social critique to the forefront, but the fundamental structural problem here is still in the script, and it’s the same one from every adaptation: Knox doesn’t really have a lot to do with the actual story being told here. His pontificating exists in a separate world from the killers, and in fact I’m not even sure they ever meet. So where’s the conflict? Harwood, perhaps wise to this issue, turns Sands’s HGMS character into a more active, heroic protagonist than other versions have (he even manages to actually rescue his girlfriend, a somewhat ludicrous addition to an otherwise fairly grounded story and a major deviation from Thomas’s script, where she does indeed die). But let’s be real here, no one gives a fuck about Sands’s “Dr. Murray” and his dalliances with a suspiciously well-groomed prostitute girlfriend. He’s just not an interesting character and his story arc is virtually non-existent. Just like every HGMS before him, we waste an interminable amount of time on his moronic love life while we patiently wait for him to have something to do with the actual story.

There’s not really any getting around this single and movie-killing point: Burke and Hare are really the only active characters in this tale until the very end, but they’re fairly one-dimensional villains and can’t sustain a story on their own. When their comeuppance finally arrives, there’s curiously little catharsis to be had, they’re simply caught rather randomly (and for once more or less by the actual real people responsible, a family boarding with the Hares, called Webb here and Gray in real life). One is punished, the other set free and the movie ends in all honesty rather arbitrarily (interestingly, Thomas’s script includes scenes from the trial. They don’t appear in here, but had they been filmed, this would have been the first movie version to depict it.) As for Dr. Rock, his character growth is summarized nicely in an (unintentionally?) hilarious edit at the end of the film: the chairman of a medial committee, having just decided not to pursue disciplinary action against Rock, solemnly intones: “no court could punish him him as much as his own conscience will.” One second of screen time later, Rock assures his wife, “the only thing I regret is what I’ve done to the people I love the most.” Oh, well, I guess we needn’t have worried.***** It turns out later that he’s a little more sorry than he’s letting on, but the fact that the line sounds perfectly believable in the moment is a testament to how little real character evolution is contained in the story. This is the final and inescapable lesson of all these dodgy adaptations: the basic narrative structure here is unsustainable. At the heart of this mess of characters and tangled plotlines, there’s not really a discreet story as such, it’s just a catalogue of events, and as such, curiously unfulfilling.

All the film adaptations of the Burke and Hare story have their problems. I like several aspects of this one quite a lot: it looks great, for one -- a very nice production design complimented with handsome photography. I appreciate its emphasis on the gritty, unglamourous horror of everyday life. I like the oddness of Pryce and Rea’s performances, even if they don’t exactly add up to anything substantial. I like a lot of Thomas’s deceptively simple and elegant prose. But even given all that, by the time the movie squeaks across the finish line --even at a completely reasonable 93 minutes-- there’s a palpable sense of pained directionlessness, a movie reaching its destination without ever having decided where it was actually going. Individual scenes may work, but they never build on each other in any meaningful way, the pacing is slack and utterly fails to generate even the faintest hint of real tension. Each enjoyable part of the puzzle slides away into obscurity the minute it passes from the screen, and the next bit is pushed forward haphazardly into the spotlight to stare at us with panicked bafflement, before it too is gone. Despite all the big names on display here, THE DEVIL AND THE DOCTORS makes one thing clear: the previous adaptations to stumble did so not entirely for lack of talent. The problem here is rather inherent in the narrative structure itself.

It would be 30 years before another Burke and Hare adaptation was attempted, and when it arrived, it would be the first film since THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART to radically depart from the structure pioneered by Thomas. Next up: The world remembers that serial murder is also fertile ground for a delightful comic farce.

*He did direct a handful of TV episodes during those years, so he hadn’t completely abandoned direction.

**Presumably the inspiration for Dr. Rockso, the Rock N’ Roll Clown.

***This detail is made a bit more explicit by Harwood, who helpfully has Broom explain to Fallon that “there’s a madness in you.” But it’s in the Thomas screenplay too, albeit a bit more subtly. The bit in Thomas’s version where a drunken Fallon ponders his hands and blames them for the murders is maybe my favorite scene in the whole play, and unfortunately not included here. It’s exclusion is as good an example as any of how the film has more violence than Thomas’s version, but maybe less horror.

**** What, you think you’re hard enough to kill a motherfucker named “Billy Bedlam”? You ain’t shit. He does die in the Thomas version, though. In the movie, he just vanishes after a while. I suspect they originally intended to kill him here too, but maybe cut those scenes or ended up not shooting them for whatever reason. He’s notably absent from the end, when his sister Alice gets killed (as a substitute for Jeanie in the Thomas version), but no one ever mentions him. Bad sign.

***** This movie is generally absolutely dire in tone, despite the fact that Rock at least has a whole slew of zingers (sample line: “TOM: They’ve brought a body, sir. ROCK: I did not expect they would bring a soul.”)


2010: Burke and Hare

Burke and Hare-athon Checklist!

  • Title: The Doctor and the Devils (1985)
  • Genre: Historical Film / True Crime Drama / maybe a little horror
  • Story regulars: (all renamed but recognizable) Burke, Hare, Knox, Paterson, Mrs. Docherty, HGMS, Daft Jamie (sort of; he appears only briefly at the beginning and I doubt I’d have recognized it was supposed to be him had I not read the Thomas version, which features him more prominently). For the first time ever, we even meet the Gray family, who actually solved the crimes in real life.
  • Attitude towards Dr. Knox: Mostly positive, maybe the most positive portrayal ever.
  • Wonky eye or no? None. What, you’re going to try and make Timothy Dalton not look roguishly handsome? How dare you suggest such a thing.
  • Scottish accents? Patrick Stewart does a mild one. Other than that, nothin’. In fact, a lot of the cast inexplicably uses Cockney accents.
  • Irish accents? Rea is Irish, but his accent is subtle. I think Pryce might be trying for one, but I dunno, he sounds more English than Irish most of the time.
  • Heaving cleavage? Not a service that Twiggy can provide, I’m afraid. Although there is a little nudity from some of the minor characters.
  • Rockin’ theme music? Not exactly rockin’, but the movie has two songs from composer John Morris, one with vocals from Irish folk stars In Tua Nua, another --Whisper and I Shall Hear-- with Twiggy on vox!

No, Daft Jamie isn't a vampire, he's just hardly in this and this was the only clear image I could find.