Studio:Kino Year: 1972 Cast: Derren Nesbitt, Glynn Edwards, Harry Andrews, Françoise Pascal, Yutte Stensgaard, Yootha Joyce, Dee Shenderey, Paul Greaves, David Pugh, Katya Wyath, Alan Tucker, Robin Hawdon Director: Vernon Sewell Release Date: July 17, 2012 Rating: R for (nudity) Run Time: 01h:34m:08s Genre(s): horror
"Will you show a little respect for the dead and get your ass off the coffin?" - Burke (Derren Nesbitt)
This is a curiosity, if nothing else. It is a fairly straightforward recitation of the legend of those famous 1800s-era-Scotland/dead-body-sellers William Burke and William Hare, mixed with some tired attempts at humor and frequent nudity.
Movie Grade: C-
DVD Grade: C-
Vernon Sewell's final directing gig was this 1972 outing about the celebrated killers Burke & Hare; it's unforutnately like a film made by committee, a confused committee, one with no consistent vision of what it's really supposed to be. Is it a history lesson about 1820s Scotland? Is it a black comedy with "bring out your dead" undertones? Is it "bawdy" sexploitation with attractive women baring their pleasant breasts? I've seen it - thanks to this new Blu-Ray release from Kino/Redemption - and I'll confess that I'm not clear myself. To further muddy the waters it has a bizarrely anachronistic theme song, performed with a jangly kind of late 1960s pop stylings by a group called The Scaffolds, which may or may not have featured Paul McCartney's brother.
Here's what I do know about Sewell's take on history: it tells the tale of Burke (Derren Nesbitt) and Hare (Glynn Edwards), a couple of destitute low-lifes, eeking out a living the best they can. Circumstances lead them to discover that there is money to be made by providing "fresh" dead bodies to the no-questions-asked Dr. Knox (Harry Andrews) down at the medical college. With cadavers at a premium doctors are eager for bodies to practice on, and in some demented way Burke & Hare are providing a service. It gets out of hand when instead of being content with delivering dead bodies they encounter they take it upon themselves (as well as their harridan wives, played by Yootha Joyce and Dee Shenderey) to become cold-blooded killers to generate a regular inventory. It doesn't take a working knowledge of the real Burke & Hare to know things will eventually end badly, though their real-life nasty comeuppance, which would be the payoff, is left to a convenient voiceover just before the end credits.
A sidestory set in the town brothel is notable in Burke & Hare for four reasons, and those are the frequently featured breasts of Françoise Pascal and Yutte Stensgaard. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but there is a large portion of the narrative that serves no greater good than to showcase their attractive nudity. The frivolous skin culminates in the third act with a protracted threesome of Pascal, Stensgaard and Nesbitt that made this feel more like a grindhouse title. Pascal - as kind whore Marie who eventually figures prominently in the downfall of Burke and Hare - and Stensgaard are certainly in their well-built prime here, but the gratuitousness of their scenes tilts this one in a noticeably lopsided direction.
If I were to dig deep to find something to recommend about this, aside from the au natural grandeur of Pascal and Stensgaard, it would likely be Derren Nesbitt's William Burke. It's not the world's greatest performance, but amidst the cast here he's easily the standout. Nesbitt imbues the role with a likeable swagger, certainly much more endurable than Glynn Edwards' raspy scoundrel Hare. Edwards' dialogue is often immeasurably difficult to decipher, and with the disc having no subtitle options I was often left ignoring much of what he mumbled.
The backcover may proclaim that this was "mastered in HD from a 35mm negative" but the AVC-encoded 1.66:1 transfer from Kino Lorber/Redemption is pretty disappointing, with only a few sequences (mostly set in the brothel) looking anywhere approaching serviceable. Those bits (and the accompanying nudity) look vibrant, warm and colorful, while the rest of the transfer is soft and muddy. Specks, dirt and other annoyances are frequent and midway through there is a long stretch where there is a constant flicker.
Audio is available as an uncompressed PCM 2.0 mono track, and while there are no alarming imperfections it is a victim of its own low-budget early 1970s roots. Loud voices tend to clip a bit, and the entire track is consistently unremarkable and wafer thin.
There's an odd lot of extras, beginning with Grave Desires: Corpses On Film (12m;27s) with Dr. Patricia MacCormack. I'm not entirely sure who MacCormack is, but from what I can gather she is a Goth-festooned expert on such things as stiffs in cinema. Also included is a new Interview with Françoise Pascal (04m:14s) who recalls her work on Burke & Hare, all with the right amount of humor. There are also a set of assorted trailers for Burke & Hare, The Blood Beast Terror, Killer's Moon, Virgin Witch and The Asphyx.