Burke and Hare-athon Wrap-up.
TO SEE THE WHOLE SERIES, START HERE AND LEARN THE TERRIFYING TRUE STORY:
TO SEE THE WHOLE SERIES, START HERE AND LEARN THE TERRIFYING TRUE STORY:
Well, we’ve done it: we’ve covered more than a half-century (65 years, to be precise) of Burke and Hare movies, from 1948-2010. If the trend keeps up, we should have a new one in another 5-10 years; since the earliest-known screen version (the apparently lost or unavailable BBC broadcast of The Anatomist in 1939), we’ve gotten a new Burke and Hare film on average every 11.6 years. That would put the next Burke and Hare film in August of 2021. August 7, to be specific. Since that’s on a Saturday, I’m predicting they’ll move it up to August 6 and do a typical Friday release, unless by that time all movies are just automatically downloaded directly into our brains anyway, in which case feel free to look back at my original prediction as a dire warning of things to come.
By 2021, the world writ large and --more relevant to our focus here-- the world of cinema, will no doubt be a very different place. That won’t stop ‘em, though; Burke and Hare have survived a jump from page to stage to screen, they’ve endured through the classic age of 30’s horror (THE BODYSNATCHER, 1935), the waning days of the early horror cycle (THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART, 1948), the heyday of chatty 50’s TV (THE ANATOMIST, 1956), the onset of the Hammer horror resurgence (THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, 1960), the ignominity of swinging 70’s British malaise (BURKE AND HARE, 1972), the emergence of the jokey slasher era (THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS, 1985). They sat out the angsty 90’s, but came roaring back in the amoral ‘aughts with appearances in a 2004 Dr. Who episode, a 2012 stage musical entitled Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare, and, of course, our most recent cinematic offering, 2010’s cheerfully comedic BURKE AND HARE 2010.
I think the surprising staying power of this murderous real-life duo --who have a cinematic history nearly as long as the ubiquitous Dracula-- raises a fundamental question: What makes this premise so enduringly appealing? What is it about the Burke and Hare story that fundamentally intrigued filmmakers across such vastly different time periods? And, indeed, was it only one thing, or did different aspects wax and wane in importance for different artists over many years?
When I began this series, I would have thought the first question would have a fairly simple answer. It would have been my answer; after all, I knew who Burke and Hare were long before I began following their cinematic exploits. Like a lot of people, I’ve always had kind of a guilty fascination with true crime tales, and serial killers in particular. Part of this, I’m obliged to admit, is almost certainly simply the lurid extravagance of colorfully antisocial behavior. Probably if I’m being completely honest, a lot of the appeal is the same as a horror movie: cheap thrills and the promise of a compelling boogeyman. If you think it’s in poor taste to turn to stories of real-life brutality and murder as a source of cheap entertainment, well, you’re not wrong, but your disapproval ain’t going to make it any less entertaining (we’ll leave it to incompetent filmmaking to do that). Even so, I think there’s also a little something more philosophical in our fascination with this topic and especially this case. Humans in general and, I think, Westerners in particular, have a special perverse interest in “the monster next door.” We understand and even celebrate violence in many forms, but we also keep our moral world tidy by creating clear mental frameworks of who’s wearing the black hat and who’s wearing the white one. We like our world filled with starkly defined good guys and bad guys, and the idea that seemingly normal, mundane everyday kind of folks would be capable of serial killings sits uneasily with that notion.
The capacity of humans for cruelty and violence is hardly a new concept, but usually we’re able to decisively and comfortably separate the them from the us. Consequently, we’re (depressing) accepting of violence with a clear motive we can understand, categorize, and absolve ourselves of. Atrocities in wars are the result of groupthink and the now fairly well-understood de-individuation phenomenon, serial killers and spree shooters are mentally ill, terrorists are ideological zealots trying to fight for political points, most killers in the US are just drunk and angry and acting violently in the heat of the moment. We may find these motivations reprehensible, but at least they make sense to us, they don’t challenge our basic view of the world. But Burke and Hare resist such easy explanation. Though mental illness was obviously little-understood back then, there’s no evidence that either one of them was purely crazy. They don’t seem to have been the victim of any serious psychological trauma that would have left them incapacitated or unbalanced; in fact they seem to have lived their lives up to the murders more or less uneventfully. They weren’t motivated by anger, they didn’t simply lash out; quite the opposite in fact, they planned and schemed and improved their techniques. They weren’t radicals, they didn’t have any extreme ideology to motivate them. They were just normal, poverty-ridden people living normal lives just like thousands of other people in the city.* And then one day, they find out that they can make money selling corpses, and before long they’ve spent most of a year murdering old women, children, the mentally ill, the desperate, the vulnerable, and anyone they could get their hands on. How? How do you end up like that?
It’s a fascinating question, and one which you would think would motivate the whole enterprise of dramatizing their story. And yet, not a single movie really seriously attempts to psychoanalyze the two ostensible main characters here. Mostly they’re presented as murderous villains from the outset, especially early on (THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART, THE ANATOMIST) or at least debauched scumbags happily willing to become murderers when the opportunity presents itself (THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, BURKE AND HARE 1972). It’s only really the last two films which allow even a flimsy amount of personal examination for the pair. THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS neglects a lot of the original Dylan Thomas screenplay wherein the killers (in some ways) grapple with the horrors of what they’ve done, but still includes a few scant moments of pause on their part, some suggestion that the murder spree has not been good for them psychologically and that they were probably pretty damaged to begin with. BURKE AND HARE 2010 also generally neglects to probe these characters’ inner lives, but at least offers Burke a token opportunity to admit his guilt as he awaits his fate, though it treats this moment more as a lesson learned rather than an acknowledgement of something he’s known all along. Still, it’s the only acknowledgement of any guilt whatsoever from the pair in their entire filmography.
If I could point to a single reason why it seems like the Burke and Hare films have never quite found a totally successful story format, I think it might well be be this surprisingly lack of interest in the motives and inner lives of its nominal central characters. What’s the use of dramatizing the story of two people you have no real interest in probing a little deeper? Their actual actions (mostly smothering drunk old women) are not especially interesting or cinematic, the only interesting question is how and why two otherwise normal people (and really, four, since their wives were in on it too, though mostly that never gets brought up) sink to such a twisted level of depravity. But not a single film adaptation addresses the question in any meaningful way; the pair is simply presented as intrinsically villainous from the start, generic bad guys in need of a comeuppance.
With Burke and Hare cast as boilerplate villains, there arises a need for some kind of dramatic arc which foils them, and that is provided, in the case of every film except, arguably, THE ANATOMIST (where Burke and Hare are arrested off-screen by other forces) and BURKE AND HARE 2010 (which posits the pair themselves as the heroes), by the invented Handsome Generic Medical Student character (HGMS). This person has perhaps a vague basis in the longstanding rumors that students of Dr. Knox recognized local girl-about-town and maybe-prostitute Mary Paterson when she appeared on the dissection table, but of course historically, the crimes of Burke and Hare were uncovered by an altogether different sort of person, a family called Grey who were living in Hare’s wife’s boarding house (which doubled as a site for most of the murders). They feature in exactly one film, and are still a minor role even in that one. Presumably in the hopes of generating more drama, the task of moral protagonist has fallen to the HGMS character --rather than the Greys-- from the very beginning (in fact, his first appearance in THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART is probably the high point for the character, who in that case exists solely as a detective character and foil to the villains). But with the exception of early works like GREED OF WILLIAM HART and THE ANATOMIST, this character’s story arc has never been satisfactorily established. He’s simply too far removed from the action for nearly the entire story; only at the end, when Paterson is killed, does his character generate any drama, but to get there he has to be a lead weight tied onto the entire plot. He’s essentially a totally passive character until the film’s final act, which makes for a very cumbersome story structure. This becomes an even bigger problem when, in order to give our HGMS a personal stake in the proceedings, they also have to introduce some victims (most often Daft Jamie and Mary Paterson) and then waste time establishing their relationships to the HGSM and their miserable lives.**
I suspect part of the problem all along was that censorship requirements kept writers from seriously presenting the killers as anything more than one-dimensional villains (hell, in their first iteration they were not even allowed to keep their real names.) 2010’s BURKE AND HARE is the only film to seriously toy with the idea of humanizing these legendary boogeymen, and frankly it’s a little skittish about it, trying so hard to make them likable that it kinda misses the point of telling the story at all. And that was in 2010; for most of British cinema, censors were far stricter about the kind of content which they would sanction for public viewing. Unable, then, to seriously explore the motives of the most active characters in the story, writers were forced to fall back to another option, a secondary villain but one who who history has viewed with somewhat more nuance: Dr. Knox. I’m tempted to speculate that part of the various authors’ interest in Knox and apparent disinterest in Burke and Hare themselves is class-based. Sure, these uneducated, poverty-stricken Irish drunks couldn’t be expected to comport themselves like human beings, but what do we do with an educated, wealthy aristocrat who would associate with them? I doubt that was at the forefront of every writer’s mind, of course; more likely it was a natural function of the culture as the earliest tellers of the Burke and Hare tale wrote their accounts, and was simply accepted as a basic story structure without much thought by subsequent generations. Whatever the reason, though, it’s a decidedly odd way to frame this tale. Knox occupies an interesting philosophical space -- a character whose motives are essentially good, but who knowingly or not inspires and facilitates great harm-- but even so, he’s still a fairly passive character to put at the center of a crime story. I mean, his whole conflict is defined by his lack of action! This probably goes a long way towards explaining why, despite the interesting contradiction at the heart of the character, structuring a film around him has consistently produced such tepid results. A number of films, particularly THE ANATOMIST, spend quite a bit of time and dialogue establishing Knox’s motivation, but it essentially boils down to a fairly conventional Utilitarian argument. There’s no one in the film to meaningfully challenge it intellectually, so despite all the pontificating it never undergoes any serious interrogation, we’re simply told that it’s refuted by the end when the murders are made public (or in some cases not -- in FLESH AND THE FIENDS and THE ANATOMIST particularly, Dr. Knox is given an inexplicably happy ending).
With Knox and the HGMS as the ostensible main characters, but Burke and Hare providing almost all the action in the film, it’s little wonder that none of these adaptations quite comes together as a functional narrative. The intriguing thing about the Burke and Hare-athon is not that they work, it’s that despite never working very well, they’re surprisingly consistent throughout the years. From James Bridie’s original stage play for THE ANATOMIST onwards, nearly every narrative beat has remained the same. True, the early GREED OF WILLIAM HART focuses less on Dr. Knox than subsequent adaptations and THE ANATOMIST gives less time to Burke and Hare, but even so their basic conflicts and story structures are remarkably similar, they differ only in a matter of degree. So I think it’s most fitting to end our journey by focusing on the only true outlier, the only 21st century entry into the series: 2010’s BURKE AND HARE.
2010’s BURKE AND HARE is the only film to place Burke and Hare themselves as the main characters, and the only film to openly sympathize with them. In fact, it cultivates our fear that they will be caught as the central conflict. Since it remains the most recent film adaptation of the story, it begs the question, then: is this an aberration? Or the new normal? With new Burke and Hare films a near certainty in the future, we must ask if this new century brings with it a new interpretation of this tale, or at least the possibility thereof? 187 years later, do these events look different to us, do they evoke a fresh reaction? In our new gilded age, does the dichotomy between the rich doctor and the poor killers have the same meaning? Has the moral reading of this tale actually shifted over the course of nearly two centuries?
I do find BURKE AND HARE 2010’s brazenly amoral take on the characters somewhat telling. We in the West are very used to pretty much all narrative art taking the form of a morality tale; BURKE AND HARE does, at the end, superficially acknowledge that these are bad guys, but more than any movie before it it also seems happy to admit that they’re the most entertaining characters and they have the most interesting story. At least on some level, it validates the idea that we’re here to enjoy the journey with these characters, not simply judge them; even if we’re repulsed by their actions, we’re much more interested in them than we are any of the side characters uncomfortably forced into the protagonist role in every other production. I have a feeling the films of the millennial years are more comfortable than those of the past with offering us morally ambiguous characters (something foreign cinema, particularly in Asia, figured out from the start, but no matter) without feeling any particular need to cast judgement upon them or punish them for their misdeeds. Indeed, while Burke is executed, Hare basically gets a happy ending, without any apparent sense of anger or even irony on the filmmakers’ part. Does this open the door for other possible interpretations of these characters which are more sympathetic to them? Will we dare in this new millennium --wherein the explosion of information has made it virtually impossible to ignore the complicated, conflicted moral nature of the world-- to actually sympathize with these guys? Sure they were murderers, but maybe, just maybe, murderers are people too, just like Handsome Generic Med Students and prostitutes with hearts of gold, and perhaps the circumstances of their lives were so miserable and horrific that in a way they were victims, too. At the very least, will we finally dare to ask the simple question of how they ended up the way they did?
I don’t know. Just as the past has grown hazy with time and distance, so too does the future elude our need for certainty. Burke and Hare have already endured tiresome harangues about science, folk rock novelty songs, spin-offs, cameos, a epic Irish ballad sung by Twiggy, and even being in a goddam romantic comedy. Obviously they’ll have to go to space at some point; Jason did it. HELLRAISER did it. LEPRECHAUN did it. So that’s an obvious one. Maybe they’ll do a version set in the old West, or maybe their legend will spread worldwide and some Japanese or Indian filmmaker or something will take a swing at it. They’ve never been in a full-on musical film (admittedly, they did a stage musical in 2012) so Bollywood might be a good fit. What else? Maybe it can be made into an action movie where Burke and Hare have to hunt down their victims in a TURKEY SHOOT kind of situation, with jacked-up Australian all-terrain vehicles and an extraneous werewolf. And while I’m thinking about werewolves, that opens up a whole world of crossover possibilities. Burke and Hare have cameoed in other franchises (DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE, Dr. Who, The Twilight Zone) but they haven’t really had any good cameos themselves, yet. What about a version where Burke and Hare are actually delivering bodies to… Dr. Frankenstein!?!? Or that the HGMS is actually Steven Seagal, and he aikido’s the villains straight through a bunch of windows until their wrists are thoroughly broken?
Yes, the future is surely bright for this pair of debased, drunken 19th-century serial killers. In an irony which is surely lost on no one, as long as they keep earning a little money for us, we’ll be more than happy to keep digging up their corpses and selling them off. As Dr. Knox would surely argue, Science cannot progress without remakes!
*A 1821 census put the population at 138,235; 162,403 in 1831.
**Interesting, Daft Jamie and Mary Paterson seem to have gradually switched in importance over the years. Early efforts, especially GREED OF WILLIAM HART, focus heavily on Jamie's character, but as the years went on he played ever-smaller roles (barely appearing in DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS) while, meanwhile, from FLESH AND THE FIENDS onward, the relationship between the HGMS and Mary Paterson took on increasing prominence. Neither character appears at all in BURKE AND HARE 2010.
OUR STORY SO FAR:
Appendix A: A full list of film/ TV featuring or obviously influenced by Burke and Hare:
1939: The Anatomist (original TV version, based on 1930 play)
1945: The Bodysnatcher (actually an ostensible sequel, where Burke and Hare are referenced)
1948: The Greed of William Hart (Burke and Hare are given different names)
1949: The Anatomist (Alistair Sim, Elena Fraser)
1956: The Anatomist (Alistair Slim, Adrienne Corri, TV Play)
1956: The Anatomist (Alistair Slim, Adrienne Corri, TV movie, same cast)
1958: Corridors of Blood (Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee are obvious amalgams of Knox and Burke and Hare, respectively)
1960: The Flesh and the Fiends
1963: The New Exhibit (TV Episode of The Twilight Zone, features Burke and Hare as museum exhibits that come to life and menace Martin Basalm)
1964: The MacGregor Affair (TV Episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1966: The Body Snatcher (TV Episode of Mystery and Imagination)
1971: Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (Burke and Hare are henchmen characters)
1972: Burke and Hare
1975: El ladrón de cadáveres (TV Episode of El quinto jinete)
1980: The Anatomist by James Bridie (BBC production w/ Patrick Stewart as Knox)
1985: The Doctor and the Devils (Burke and Hare are given different names)
2010: Burke and Hare