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Pros: Sleaze factor; grimy portrait of olde Edinburgh; the basic (true) story is pretty wild

Cons: Film never settles on a consistent tone, thus the script is kinda messy

A dramatization of the infamous that occurred in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1828 (a real-life case which served as the basis for numerous TV shows and feature films), 1972’s Burke & Hare perhaps unexpectedly plays more as a light comedy than as a suspense thriller or horror film. Directed Vernon Sewell (known for his well-produced B-movies), the film chronicles the story of Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare who, over the course of a ten month period, provided a string of dead human bodies for surgeon Robert Knox to use in his popular (and hugely profitable) anatomy lectures.

Drawings of the perpetrators of the crimes.

To start, an initially reluctant Burke and Hare provided Knox with bodies that had died of natural causes, but as time went on and they realized the amount of money that could be gained from this trade, the two Irishmen “helped the process along” by murdering people to fulfill Knox’s desire for cadavers. Science being what it was at the time – and almost a novelty to be shown to the unsuspecting masses – corpses were very valuable, and Knox was apparently all to willing to accept the bodies no questions asked. As the story of the two body snatchers plays out, script writer Ernle Bradford throws in a subplot dealing with a rather wide-eyed medical student named Arbuthnot who comes to suspect that the bodies used in Knox’s dissection studies have been acquired in rather unsavory ways. There’s also considerable amount of time payed in the film to the goings on at a local brothel which seem mostly irrelevant but ultimately (slightly) tie in to the bigger story going on.

Their onscreen representation.

Undoubtedly, the biggest problem with the film is that the tone of the piece is never adequately nailed down. At certain points, director Sewell seems to be going for a more serious, creepy sort of feel somewhat similar to what one might have expected to find in the Hammer Film productions of the early 1970s. At other times, Burke & Hare is overrun with a sense of bawdiness as it focuses (too much?) attention on the clientele and residents of the brothel. Though the point could be made that these risque scenes add to the production by giving the film a high sleaze quotient (and I can’t really argue with the parade of nice-looking women paraded around in as little clothing as possible), they come at a price: the script by Bradford seems very unfocused. There are quite a few times where the ongoing narrative grinds to a screeching halt to allow for a few vaguely amusing slapstick bits involving the kinky behavior of the brothel’s customers. Some viewers might be amused by these moments, but they’re more than a bit distracting and don’t really much to the film as a whole. A final complicating element in the film is the inclusion of a loud and raunchy title song (performed and sung by The Scaffolds). This music reminds me of what one might expect to find playing at a carnival: it seems completely out of place with what we’re seeing.

all fun n games
It’s all fun ‘n’ games in the local brothel, even as the murder spree intensifies.

On the plus side, Sewell’s film does a fine job of recreating the generally squalid living conditions that existed in 1820’s Scotland. This entire film seems very grimy and dirty, with often shadowy sets that appear to be in desperate need of a good scrubbing. The despicable pair of main characters in this film (and the two women who serve as accomplices in their crimes) seem to be right at home in this environment: nefarious people doing unspeakable acts all for a quick buck. In the name of science. Well, sort of. The color scheme throughout the picture adds to the appropriate gloominess: though scenes taking place in the brothel are overloaded with liveliness and color, most everything else here seems almost diseased. Grays and browns dominate the screen and even the spotty attempts at humor never quite overcome the sense of unease that exists throughout the picture. To be honest, it doesn’t seem much like there’s any legitimate heroic major character present: Arbuthnot is noble enough, but his part in the bigger scheme of the story is relatively minor. Thus, Burke & Hare almost plays out in the manner of the classic gangster films in which a viewer continues watching not necessarily to see the good guys win, but to discover how the villains are ultimately brought down.

Example of the squalid and genuinely repulsive setting of this film. Note the utter lack of color and “cheer.”

I rather liked the cast assembled for this film: character actors Derren Nesbitt (as the slightly less diabolical, womanizing Burke) and Glynn Edwards (the positively slimy Hare) play the title characters, doing a fine job of showing their characters’ evolution from being incompetent buffoons to cold-blooded murderers. Edwards in particular comes across as a perfect B-movie villain, having a definitive “wouldn’t want to run into that guy at night” look about him. In real life, Hare testified against his partner and essentially walked away scot-free once the murderous duo was found out – he certainly comes across as being the more conniving, more definably evil character in this film adaptation of the story.

That grin says it all, doesn’t it? From left, Burke, Hare, doctor’s assistant, and Knox himself.

Meanwhile, British screen veteran Harry Andrews plays Dr. Knox as exactly the type of shady physician one would expect to be shuffling around the alleyways of this filthy recreation of Edinburgh. Andrews’s Knox (who sports an eyepatch over one eye, making him even more imposing and sinister) has a few moments where he shows his softer side, but he’s generally quite cold and calculating, becoming downright frightening when he starts lecture characters about their personal decisions. A scene where he chews out the naïve Arbuthnot and his habit of getting friendly with the local prostitutes may be the most commanding in the film even though it’s nothing more than a simple conversation. Alan Tucker plays the role of the the young Arbuthnot as a well-intentioned nerd who eventually falls for a French courtesan named Marie (played by the lovely – and frequently nude – Françoise Pascal). The love story between these two characters generally was completely unnecessary aside from being unbelievable and convenient: their whole storyline plays solely as filler, taking away from the cohesiveness of the piece as a whole. One wonders if Burke & Hare would even have made it to feature length if this material was removed though – and that hints at what may be the biggest problem with regard to this picture: no one involved with it seems to have had any idea what they really wanted to do with the story.

What’s behind the box? Someone sure seems interested…

It’s very telling that the titular characters are frequently nearly forgotten in writer Bradford’s script, particularly after they start their murder spree. Instead of focusing large amounts of time on the murders themselves, the film documents them largely through the use of a montage playing out to – you guessed it – the ridiculously chipper title theme. As might be expected, this seems a very poor choice, perhaps one more indication that Sewell simply couldn’t figure out if he wanted to make a pitch-black comedy or a slightly bawdy, partly scary period drama. Certainly, Burke & Hare is watchable, a film boosted by impressive art design. It also tells the story of these murders somewhat accurately even if it takes liberties with the peripheral characters. Still, the tone of the piece is all over the place and it doesn’t truly work as either a drama, comedy, or more suspenseful horror type picture, winding up as a small scale, relatively insignificant work when placed alongside other similar films from the time period. Seeking this film out isn’t really justifiable, but if you find it on demand and have an afternoon with nothing to do, this curio would be an agreeable if rather forgettable time-waster.

Blu-ray and DVD releases are from Redemption Films; Widescreen with no extras.

5/10 : Macabre subject matter for sure, but in terms of actual onscreen gore, this film is relatively tame.

1/10 : More viewers would be turned off by the thick Scottish accents than by the speckling of minor profanity that’s heard here.

8/10 : Lots of nice-looking nude and semi-nude women being paraded around and some rather kooky sexual situations as well. I’d go so far as to say this film is definitively bawdy.

6/10 : Well-made and certainly not boring, this film is unlikely to be universally admired, but I could see it being a minor cult item.

“Show a little respect for the dead – will ya get yer ass off the coffin!”

Trailer: (NSFW-ish)

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