Burke & Hare (1972) | A Hammer-esque sexploitation curio
The pimps and the prostitutes and the body-snatchers. The brothels and dens of iniquity!
In 19th-century Edinburgh, Irish immigrants William Burke (Derren Nesbitt) and William Hare (Glynn Edwards), discover there’s money to be made supplying fresh corpses to noted College of Surgeons anatomist Dr Robert Knox (Harry Andrews). But when demand starts outstripping supply, the greedy resurrection men turn to preying on drunken prostitutes and vagabonds. However, the death of a club-footed simpleton and a young woman’s disappearance proves to be their undoing…
Gallows humour and saucy British sitcom-styled shenanigans make strange bedfellows in this 1972 British period horror yarn. In retelling the story of the infamous Burke and Hare murders that took place in Edinburgh in 1828, director Vernon Sewell, who had just made two horrors back-to-back (The Blood Beast Terror and Curse of the Crimson Altar), chose, unwisely – as it turns out – to take the sexploitation route for his final fright flick. Littered with penis jokes and gratuitous nipple flashing (even in the morgue – how disrepectful), it should have been called Confessions of a Body Snatcher.
Although Harry Andrews gives a terrifically hammy performance as medical pioneer Knox, playing him as a bullish obsessive gleefully carving up the dodgy cadavers while turning a blind eye to their provenance, Burke and Hare are played strictly for laughs. Thick in mentality and in their ‘Oirish’ accents, they eminded me of Stan and Jack from On The Buses. But instead of pulling birds, they are the henpecked husbands of the film’s real villains – their shrewish wives, played by Dee Shenderey and Yootha Joyce (who was married to Edwards until their divorce in 1968), who think nothing of killing old ladies for ‘a wee dram’.
The comedy thriller’s side-story, involving three medical students and a local brothel, is also an awkward mix of Benny Hill slapstick and whodunit, especially when Alan Tucker’s young doctor in the love goes in search of Françoise Pascal’s missing Marie. Yutte Stensgaard (who once guested in On The Buses) also mysteriously disappears – but it’s not clear if she ended up as another victim or just got left on the cutting room floor. One minute she’s there, the next she’s gone.
The theme tune is by the legendary Liverpudlian band, The Scaffold – who are best known for Lily the Pink. But their bawdy title song, which features the slightly unsavory lyrics ‘Beware they’re out to rape you and drape you in white’ sits uncomfortably alongside the rest of the film’s music score – which sounds like something out of an old silent movie during the brothel burning scene.
Burke & Hare is a misfire whose only merit is in seeing some fine character actors having a lark in period garb on some unconvincing Twickenham Studio sets.
THE UK RELEASE
Burke & Hare gets a UK release on Blu-ray and DVD from Odeon Entertainment as part of their OEG Classic Movies collection from 4 May 2015, featuring the film in its original 1:66.1 aspect ratio and with Dolby Digital mono sound (note: the opening title theme is rather scratchy, but the rest of the audio track is perfectly fine).
AND ANOTHER THING…
When it comes to screen adaptations of the Burke and Hare story, few stand out – except maybe John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), with George Rose and Donald Pleasance playing the body snatchers and Peter Cushing in Knox role; while Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher (1945), the last film to feature Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff together, drew heavily on the West Port murder case, but was actually based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story. Back in 2010, meanwhile, John Landis took a comic stab at the material with Brit favourites Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis playing the rogues. But has anyone actually seen it? For information on the real Burke and Hare, check this out: http://burkeandhare.com/
Posted on May 4, 2015, in British Film, Horror, Maybe Miss, Maybe Miss, Maybe-Miss, Thriller and tagged 1930s British film, Body Snatching, British 1970s horror, British Film, Burke and Hare murders, Comedy thriller, Derren Nesbitt, Françoise Pascal’, Glynn Edwards, Harry Andrews, Horror, Maybe miss, Thriller, Vernon Sewell, Yootha Joyce, Yutte Stensgaard. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.