In Edinburgh, Scotland during the period of November, 1827 to October, 1828, the duo of William Burke and William Hare murdered 17 victims, selling the corpses to Doctor Robert Knox for medical dissection. These notorious real-life events would later be referenced in Robert Louis Stevenson's short story, "The Body Snatcher", which inspired a 1945 film of the same name with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The murders were then adapted for a 1948 British film to be titled “Crimes of Burke and Hare”, but censorship lead to some major changes, and the film was released as THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART starring Tod Slaughter. Two more Burke and Hare retellings were shown in the early 1960s: THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS starring Peter Cushing as Knox and George Rose and Donald Pleasance as the duo, as well as a British TV version (THE ANATOMIST) with Alastair Sim as Knox. The early 1970s brought on yet another take, released with the blunt-as-can be title BURKE AND HARE (aka THE HORRORS OF BURKE AND HARE) and directed by veteran Vernon Sewell (THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR, THE CRIMSON CULT).
Burke (Derren Nesbitt) and Hare (Glynn Edwards) run an old men's boarding house with their lazy wives (statuesque Dee Shenderey and Yootha Joyce, the original “Mrs. Roper” on the Britcom “Man About the House”). The notion of lining their pockets with extra money leads Burke and Hare to the backdoor of the medical university where Dr. Knox (Harry Andrews, THEATRE OF BLOOD) lectures, as they sell him the body of a lodger who had just passed on. Seeing that Knox pays well for fresh cadavers, when another border becomes sickly, instead of bringing him to a hospital, Burke and Hare snuff him out themselves, and again make an easy profit. This quickly becomes too much of a good thing, as the duo perfects a way of suffocating victims – just about any poor soul who comes into contact with them, or that they suspect no one in the village will miss. Their wives are at first suspicious about where all the money is coming from, but the realization is that their greed makes them favorable of their husbands' homicidal ways of earning a decent living.
Although FLESH AND THE FIENDS is considered far and wide the definitive cinematic take on the subject, BURKE AND HARE remains a flawed but worthy effort by Sewell, and many hold this in higher regards than some of his awkward 1960s horrors. One of the biggest issues is whether the film wants to be a sexploitation comedy or a straight horror film, and we are given an early tip-off with the bawdy pop tune theme (“Burke and Hare, beware of ‘em… Burke and Hare, the pair of ‘em”) by The Scaffold, which is later repeated during a montage of corpse selling and young romance. When the film was produced, female nudity was a common and pretty much given attribute in British genre pictures, and this one has more than a few flashes of bare breasts. Any time sex is involved, it’s showcased as the kinky whorehouse antics of the tied-up and costumed kind, or as a reckless night of drunken frolic, such as when Burke seduces a pair of homeless prostitutes; he’s more interested in selling their beautiful bodies than actually paying for them.
Shot at Twickenham Film Studios, the art director on the film was Scott MacGregor, who also worked on a number of early 1970s Hammer films and here does a nice job of re-creating the poverty stricken streets and brothel houses of 19th century Edinburgh. Nesbitt and Edwards have pretty good chemistry as Burke and Hare, and even though at times their characters seemed to be played light (making them more likable – especially Burke – if that’s possible), they have several horrific scenes, such as when they ambush the passed-out Daft Jamie (David Pugh) in the dark, intent on snuffing him out. Although Harry Andrews is a fine actor, his rendition of Dr. Knox (who is introduced telling a tasteless dinner table joke about a man’s inadequate nether regions) shows that he didn’t really take the film seriously, and he compares unfavorably to Cushing’s authoritative interpretation, more than a decade earlier.
One of the biggest reasons to seek out and indulge in BURKE AND HARE is the presence of Yutte Stensgaard, the Hammer starlet best known for her underrated performance in LUST FOR A VAMPIRE. Along with actress Françoise Pascal (as Marie, the doomed prostitute who ends up as one of Knox’s subjects) and several others, Stensgaard shows off her beautiful figure by doing several topless scenes, and unlike in LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, we get to hear her real voice. Speaking of Hammer, a number of character actors associated with the horror specialists can be seen in small parts, including Duncan Lamont (FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN), James Hayter (HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN), Robin Hawdon (WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH), Katya Wyeth (TWINS OF EVIL) and Caron Gardner (THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN). Longtime Benny Hill sidekick Bob Todd (SCARS OF DRACULA) plays a policeman, with his trademark bald scalp covered by a hat.
Just a few short years ago in 2009, Redemption released BURKE AND HARE on DVD in a full frame print transfer, which was not only on the dark side, but suffered from some messy reel changes and splices, as well as being several minutes short of its 94 minute running time. Now, Redemption, through Kino Lorber, revisits the title on Blu-ray (as well as a standard DVD utilizing the same new transfer), with far, far more glorious results. The film has now been mastered in fully 1080p resolution from the uncut 35mm negative, and it’s also in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. Detail is sharp throughout, even if some of the night-time scenes are a tad soft, and colors are for the most part vivid, only looking slightly muted on occasion. There are some scattered blemishes on the source negative, but for the most part, this is a fantastic looking HD transfer of one of the rarer British horror films, with several interior scenes being nothing short of stunning in apperance. The mono English audio also comes off well, and is not impaired by the pops witnessed in the previous Redemption DVD release.
A carry-over from the previous Redemption DVD, the short featurette entitled, “Grave Desires: Corpses on Film” (12:26) is basically an interview with an appropriately goth-garbed female expert (Dr. Patricia MacCormack) who seems to know her stuff. A new short and sweet interview with actress Françoise Pascal (4:14) has her discussing being discovered for BLOOD SUCKERS, and her fond experience of appearing in BURKE AND HARE and the friends she made while making it (by jason). The actress is very critical of her own performance in the film, even joking about a critic’s negative description of her abilities in his review. An original British trailer for the film is included, as well as trailers for THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR, THE ASPHYX, KILLER’S MOON and THE VIRGIN WITCH. (George R. Reis)
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