Directed By: Vernon Sewell
Starring: Derren Nesbitt, Harry Andrews, Glynn Edwards
Tag line: "The pimps and the prostitutes and the body-snatchers. The brothels and dens of iniquity"
Trivia: This was the last film Vernon Sewell ever directed
1972’s Burke & Hare, directed by Vernon Sewell, centers on the infamous Edinburgh-based duo who killed well over a dozen people in Victorian-era Scotland, then sold the bodies to a local surgeon. With a subject such as this, it’s logical to expect that the film itself is going to be a dark, brooding tale of terror. Then the theme song kicks in, an upbeat, catchy tune performed by The Scaffolds, with lyrics like:
“Burke and Hare, beware of ‘em
Burke and Hare, The pair of ‘em
Out to snatch
Your body from you”
All at once, I started to wonder what to expect from the movie: was this going to be a straight-up horror film (like IMDb claims), or a bawdy sex comedy (one of the earliest scenes is set in a brothel that caters to high-end clients with… unusual desires)?
Burke & Hare is, in fact, a little bit of both.
It’s the early 19th century. Irish immigrants William Burke (Derren Nesbitt) and William Hare (Glynn Edwards) run a boarding house, renting out their already crowded back room to a steady stream of elderly men. When MacTavish, one of their tenants, drops dead, Hare, claiming the man owed him two pounds back rent, convinces Burke that the best way to collect what’s owed them is to sell the man’s remains to medical science. Burke is reluctant at first, but soon changes his mind when he learns that Dr. Knox (Harry Andrews), a surgeon who also teaches anatomy at the Medical College, is willing to pay as high as 10 pounds for each body delivered to his door. Sure enough, the pair walks away from the transaction with over 7 pounds in their collective pockets. When another tenant (and prospective source of income), who seemed to be near death, suddenly recovers, Burke and Hare decide not to wait for nature to run its course, and finish the poor old guy off themselves, resulting in yet another lucrative payday
When the duo’s wives, Helen (Dee Shenderey) and Margaret (Yootha Joyce), catch wind of what’s going on, they aren’t shocked or appalled in the least, and even recommend a few different ways to “euthanize” future victims. Before long, Burke, Hare, and their significant others are living the high life, murdering people nobody is going to miss, and raking in the profits.
In addition to its lead characters and their macabre business practices, Burke & Hare also focuses on a brothel operated by Madame Thompson (Joan Carol), which is visited by some of the most influential men in Edinburgh. Arbuthnot (Alan Tucker), a student of Dr, Knox’s at the college, stops by Madame Thompson’s establishment on a regular basis, having fallen in love with new arrival Marie (Françoise Pascal). The two youngsters spend a great deal of time together, but when a fire destroys the brothel, Marie and her friend Janet (Yutte Stensgaard) find themselves homeless. Fortunately, a well-to-do local, who happens to be William Burke, offers them a place to stay, leading to a series of events that threaten to shake Edinburgh to its very core.
It isn’t long after the opening credits (which feature the above-mentioned theme song) that Burke & Hare introduces us to its title characters. Edwards is effective as the hard-nosed Hare, easily the most ruthless of the two, but it’s Derren Nesbitt who shines brightest, playing Burke as a temporarily conflicted partner whose doubts and inhibitions melt away the moment Dr. Knox pays them for the corpses they bring. The scene in which Hare first tells Burke about the body-selling business is played for comedy (when Hare sits on the pine crate holding MacTavish’s remains, Burke tells him to show some respect and “move your arse off the coffin”), as are many of the sequences in Madame Thompson’s house (looking through peep holes, Madame Thompson witnesses everything from S&M sessions to a topless girl riding a man as if he were a horse).
But Burke & Hare isn’t just a laugh-riot; it’s listed as a horror film as well, and on occasion we’re shown why. In one particularly troubling scene, Burke and Hare lure a young vagrant known in the area as “Daft Jamie” (David Pugh) into their abode, filling him up with liquor to make it easier to kill him when the time comes. At this moment, all comedy slips away, and the resulting melee (Daft Jamie is stronger than they expected) is, indeed, difficult to watch.
The shifts between serious and silly are quite jarring (as seen in the film’s final sequence: a drunken Halloween party that erupts into violence), and the romantic subplot involving Arbuthnot and Marie never materializes into much. But there’s plenty of dark humor, interrupted at times by some genuinely tense scenes, and while this combo doesn’t make for a perfect film, there’s enough going on throughout Burke & Hare to ensure you’re always entertained, and appropriately horrified, by what’s playing out on the screen.