Burke and Hare (1972)

Given that films about comparable Chamber of Horrors bogeys like Elisabeth Bathory and Jack the Ripper almost never strive for historical accuracy, it's something of a surprise that all movie versions of the careers of the Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare - besides this, The Greed of William Hart, The Flesh and the Fiends, The Anatomist and The Doctor and the Devils - stick fairly closely to the admittedly lurid facts. Even the précis of their career given in The Body Snatcher, based on Robert Louis Stevenson's story, is pretty much accurate. Though conceived as a 'tits and gore knees-up' in the prurient News of the World tradition - it even features that tabloid favourite, the 'three-in-a-bed romp' - this cramped little picture takes care to include all the historical victims of the pair, mention real Edinburgh landmarks, depict the moment when Burke invented his distinctive-style of smothering (a hand-grip that covers the mouth and nose) and dramatise the most famous anecdote about the case - that their killing spree was rumbled when an anatomy student recognised the corpse on the slab at a lecture as the prostitute he had spent the night with.

That said, it's a long way from being any good. We open with rough woodcut illustrations and a raucous, but somehow hummable, Roy Webb song, performed by 60s novelty chart-toppers The Scaffold ('Lily the Pink', 'Thank You Very Much'). Here's the chorus:

'Burke and 'are, beware of 'em
Burke and 'are, the pair of 'em
Out to snatch your body from you.
Burke and 'are, are out to kill
Burke and 'are won't stop until
They get rich from picking up
All the bodies in the dead of night.
They'll find you, (we're behind you),
Better keep out of sight.'

Then we're in a very low-budget version of early 19th Century Scotland, with what look like left-over Hammer costumes and Twickenham soundstage cobbled streets and inns. The action is split between three locales: the low-life lodging house run by William Hare (Glynn Edwards) and his shrewish wife (Yootha Joyce), along with William Burke (Derren Nesbitt) and his bloated colleen (Dee Shenderey); the 'house' of Madame Thompson (Joan Carol), where two Hammer Carmillas (Yutte Stensgaard, Katya 'Wayeth') are among the girls employed to scamper behind peepholes with comedy dignitaries; and the medical school where Dr Knox (Harry Andrews) teaches anatomy with the aid of bodies he has procured on a no-questions-asked basis.

When a lodger dies owing Hare two pounds, Burke and Hare turn the situation to their advantage by selling the corpse to Knox ('it would be the Catholic thing to do, like saving his soul'), and then help another man, who is suffering from typhoid, on to death so they can turn him in too (they get an extra ten shillings for freshness). They even claim, when their wives find out about the scheme, to have been doing the dead a service becayse 'the body-snatchers would have got 'im if we didn't.' Naturally, they then take to murder to keep the money rolling in, and - in an angle not found in other B&H movies but which might well have some historical justification - the wives not only enjoy the increased spending power of their windfalls but actually condone and even take part in the killings ('if you apes can't do in an old tramp, Helen and I will'). Knox keeps buying, at a top rate of eight pounds (we learn it's ten pounds in summer, when bodies spoil more quickly), even though he recognises one of the corpses as local character 'Daft Jamie' (David Pugh).

Meanwhile, James Artbuthnot (Alan Tucker), a weedy virgin medical student, has begun an affair with French tart Marie Mitchell (flat-faced Francoise Pascal). When Mrs Thompson's house burns down becuase of a lamp overturned by a too-enthusiastic flagellant, Marie and her friend Janet (Stensgaard, with an unbelievable Scots accent) seek refuge at the Hare rooming house. After Derren Nesbitt has rolled around on a bed with the two topless whores, the girls get Burked and Arbuthnot is appalled when Marie shows up on the slab. Knox understands Arbuthnot's interest in the girl ('I know well that some of my students stray from dissection to fornication') but claims she died of cirrhosis ('the death of an alcoholic whore is never a natural death, 'tis an aggravted one'). Arbuthnot won't have it, and tracks down B&H, intervening along with the constables during a wild Irish Halloween party (Glynn Edwards sings!), which is ruined when a dead match-seller tumbles out of a cupboard. Since a big trial and a mob scene are beyond the budget, it takes a narrator to explain that Hare turned King's Evidence against his comrade but was blinded when a crowd threw him into a lime pit, that Burke was hanged and publically dissected and Knox ruined professionally.

The script by Ernie Bradford is full of historical detail (a hero of Waterloo is given a free session at the brothel, if only so other customers can look through the peephole and see a kilted sergeant bedding a French girl; a crowd of street urchins practice the trade of 'pure-gathering', picking up horse dung to sell to tanneries; the state of the law with regards to the procurement of bodies for medical schools is explained) and there are welcome (if brief) character performances from James Hayter, Duncan Lamont and Jerold Wells. Nesbitt and Edwards do a fine Oirish wheedle ('Sacred heart of the crucified Jaysus!') as the mostly comical murderers, hen-pecked and self-deluding and too stupid to get away with it for long, but have too little meat to work with. The best thing in the film is Harry Andrews's Knox, a hulking one-eyed Scot with a convincing pompous burr - because the script doesn't delve into the question of how much he knew, Andrews is allowed to play with ambiguous magnanimity.

It seems likely, despite the use of The Horrors of Burke & Hare as a release title, that this was intended as a saucy sex film along the lines of The Best House in London rather than a horror movie: it only tries for one scare, as Burke holds up a pumpkin lantern outside a window to frighten his wife. There are certainly a lot of 'what the madame saw' vignettes as the brothel-keeper looks through peep-holes to see her girls with their comedy patrons (pretending to be governesses, doctor's patients, equestriennes, etc) and the bulk of Webb's busy score would seem more suited to a wireless comedy programme. Veteran Vernon Sewell, winding up a long and (let's face it) scrappy career, trots out the roistering and whoring without much conviction and makes very little of the few action scenes (the fire) or even the murders. And disappointingly, from the director of The Man in the Back Seat (also with Nesbitt), the bodies are just interchangable props, never imbued with any real sinister import.

First Published In: Ten Years of Terror (FAB Press)

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