Kino Lorber // 1972 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // July 6th, 2012
The pimps and the prostitutes and the body-snatchers. The brothels and dens of iniquity.
Plenty of movies have been made over the years of the Burke and Hare body-snatching case. Some of them are nicely grotesque pieces of entertainment, and grave robbing is a favorite plot piece of mine, so why do I keep getting the comedy versions for review? I don't even really see how the situation gets turned so easily into humor, but that's a thought for another time. For now, though, let's have a look at this 1972 entry, presented on Blu-ray from Kino International and Redemption Films.
Life is hard for poor folk of Victorian England, what with work hard to come by, low pay, and rampant disease. William Burke (Derren Nesbitt, Where Eagles Dare) and William Hare (Glynn Edwards, Zulu) have started running a grand scheme: with the rise of anatomy studies, doctors need more and more samples, so they start robbing graves and selling them to the respected Dr. Knox (Harry Andrews, Too Late the Hero). Soon, though, they advance to "fresher" samples, begin murdering prostitutes and the poor -- people nobody cares about -- and bring them in for enough cash to make them rich, but the police are on their trail and they can only keep the act going for so long.
The way Burke & Hare plays, director Vernon Sewell (Curse of the Crimson Altar) may have been better off calling his film Carry On...Grave Robbing instead. Part macabre melodrama and part sex comedy, these elements never fit together, yet the movie remains somehow enjoyable.
Much of this is thanks to the skills of Sewell, a journeyman director of early British horror. This was his final film, but it's a lively and entertaining production, with the kind of giddiness that made me constantly wonder whether they'd break out in song. Sewell's direction isn't particularly stylish, but it is quite colorful and done with an efficiency that keeps the story rolling along while actually managing to make a little sense out of the alternating stories. That's no small feat given that the two parts, the Burke and Hare case and a story of the trials of two local prostitutes (Françoise Pascal, The Iron Rose, and Yutte Stensgaard, Lust for a Vampire), are almost entirely separated until the very end of the film.
I can't deny that the performances are all fun. Even if some of the actors are not terribly skilled, everybody seems to have had a good time in the movie. That said, Nesbitt and Edwards are both highly experienced and skilled actors, which helps a lot in an exploitation movie. They keep their side rolling along just fine, while Pascal and Stensgaard have to get by on their other assets. I have no problem with that, but that part of the plot is much clunkier than the Burke and Hare plot.
Burke & Hare is dumb, but it's a good-natured and fun piece of exploitation. Neither the comedy nor the horror really works that well together and it all has a very strange vibe, but there's plenty of appeal in that.
Burke & Hare has received a much better Blu-ray release from Redemption and Kino than I expected to see. Judging from images of old prints, the 1.66:1/1080p transfer here is a huge improvement. The colors are nicely saturated, black levels are very deep, and whites are bright and clean. The transfer is almost completely free from errors and a very strong grain structure has been maintained. The sound doesn't fare quite as well, but there isn't a lot to complain about, either. The PCM 2.0 Mono mix is simple and straightforward, but the dialog and music are all clear and there's little background noise. The only extras are a pair of short interviews. The first, with star Françoise Pascal, is a standard talk about how wonderful it was to be in the production. The other, featuring Dr. Patricia MacCormack, discusses the British fascination with not only the Burke and Hare case, but with the idea of grave robbing in general. It's an interesting discussion that's maybe a little short, but it's definitely the better of the two on the disc.
Even though I don't see the inherent value of a comic version of this macabre history, Burke & Hare is without a doubt the best in this narrow field. I'll still take serious versions over this any day, but if you like your murder stories a little bawdy, this will treat you right.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Not Rated