Reviewed by Mike Erb
Director Vernon Sewell made over 30 movies in his career, and Burke & Hare ‘72 was the last film he ever directed. Take that however you will, because Burke & Hare is not a good movie. Redemption Films put a lot of love into making this Blu-ray nice, but the effort is wasted on a cheesy failure.
Burke & Hare is about the infamous serial murders and body snatchers of 1820s Edinburgh, Scotland. The story goes that William Burke and Thomas Hare are trying to make ends meet when they realize that they can sell the bodies of their dying tenants to local medical colleges for good money. Once they sell their first cadaver to university professor Dr. Knox, the duo sees real potential in the business of body snatching. The trick is that traditional grave robbing is too competitive and waiting for their tenants to die naturally is just too slow. So, Burke and Hare are inspired to pick off the drunks and beggars on the street for fast cash. All of this is happening while a young medical student falls in love with a prostitute at a cheeky, shenanigan-prone brothel.
The two parallel stories going on throughout the movie could have benefited from not being forced together. Their killing spree came about at a time when medical science could not progress without using cadavers to further explore the human body. But, people also felt the dead should not be disturbed and that the human body is sacred. That background could make for a great setup for horror, drama, and black comedy. Burke & Hare tries for all of those things and succeeds at none of them.
The horror element is limited to the murder scenes and the drama comes from characters recognizing the terrible nature of their actions, but these elements are given little more than a few minutes. Really, the brothel scenes feel like the focus of the film. There is a clear direction in the movie towards showing the brothel and that’s unfortunately the only real direction Vernon Sewell seems to have given. It felt like someone had an idea for an erotic comedy but needed something else to fill out the run time. These scenes drag on under the half-hearted attempts at absurdist, raunchy humor. The jokes about various kinks of the clientele either aren’t executed well or aren’t that funny in the first place.
There is no standout amongst the cast, but the leads do fine enough. Derren Nesbit plays William Burke as a smooth, charming lady killer. Glynn Edwards imbues a little malice into his Thomas Hare, making him one of the only somewhat scary parts of the movie. Francoise Pascal as the prostitute Marie turns in the sleepiest performance of the film, but she isn’t really given a lot to work with script-wise.
There are a few things I did like about Burke & Hare. The opening and ending credits use these lovely illustrated frames from the movie. It’s a cool way to bookend the movie, and it’s the most visually pleasing part of it overall. The other part Sewell and company got right was the soundtrack. It actually manages to convey that balance of sinister tones and quirky humor that the movie didn’t quite pull off. Plus, Sewell himself wrote the absolutely cheesy theme song. It’s wonderfully bad in the best way possible and still manages to sound groovy. The theme won’t ever usurp The Green Slime’s theme as the best kooky movie song, but it is a strong contender.
Burke & Hare doesn’t have a lot going for it. The story is all over the place and the whole production feels like two barely completed scripts were cobbled together. Avoid it unless you’re absolutely desperate for something strange.
Kino Lorber’s transfer from 35 mm seems to have gone well. The picture looks fine and shows some very rich colors. Black looks like the essence of darkness, some of the blues are quite deep, and there are some lovely splashes of vibrant red. Except when it comes to blood, which is surprisingly drab when the movie does show it. Otherwise, all you’re going to see is nearly every shade of brown. The picture has decent contrast and look as good as it could for a movie of that time.
Audio-wise, the sound is crisp and clear. There’s nothing remarkable in the audio, but there’s nothing noticeably terrible either.
The disc comes with few extras, but they’re well worth it. First, there’s an interview with Dr. Patricia MacCormack called Grave Desires: Corpses on Film. It’s just about 12 minutes of Dr. MacCormack talking about the corpses in horror movies, what it means in the context of Burke and Hare, and the historical context of their actions. The interview is really very interesting and the good doctor has some great insight into how horror cinema uses the bodies of the deceased.
There’s also an interview with Francoise Pascal, the actress playing the prostitute love interest, Marie. The whole thing lasts a little over 4 minutes and doesn’t offer much except for Pascal confirming Sewell’s lack of direction on set.
Finally, the disc also comes with a few trailers for other movies Redemption will release on Blu-ray. All the trailers are fun in their own grindhouse-like way, but they’re nothing you can’t find on YouTube.