You can count your lucky stars there's still a few Christians left in the world.
Loosely based on the real life Burke and Hare serial murders, this wonderfully grim horror tale has become the unfortunate swan song of director Vernon Sewell, a sadly underrated filmmaker of British B-cinema such as 'Ghost Ship,' 'The Black Widow' from Hammer Films and the memorable teen drama 'The Wind of Change' about the Teddy Boy subculture. While it would have been nice to see perhaps a few more movies from the prolific writer, producer and director, 'Burke & Hare' is nonetheless a delightful picture of note and a fine finish to a career that spanned over four decades. The film splendidly demonstrates his talent for balancing a controversial point in the history of medicine and science with great humor and appeal.
In spite of its implied title, the plot doesn't actually place the two Irish immigrants (Derren Nesbitt and Glynn Edwards) as the primary focal point, although they clearly remain at the center of the drama, which potentially hurts the film by appearing somewhat choppy and uneven. Instead, the filmmakers take a more historical approach to the subject matter, giving equal time and voice to those who were unwittingly involved, such Dr. Knox (Harry Andrews), or were accidentally caught up in the mystery, like the medical students who grew suspicious of their instructor's practices. None too surprising since the script came from noted British historian Ernle Bradford, in effect creating a horror history. Or better yet, a historical horror feature.
Many of the minor details, along with the timing of certain events, have been altered for narrative's sake, but the story essentially follows two separate timelines which eventually converge at the discovery of the murders and the once-respected doctor's involvement. With his wife (Yootha Joyce), Hare (Edwards) runs a lodging-house where friends Burke (Nesbitt) and wife (Dee Shenderey) also live. When a tenant dies on one of their cots, the pair decides to sell the corpse to local anatomist, Knox. The conversation and banter between them when arriving at that decision is amusing, setting the rest of the film's overall lighthearted tone. Rather than portraying the two as callous killers, Sewell has the actors act the bumbling commoners who accidentally stumble upon a grisly business venture. It's only as the film progresses that they become apathetic murderers, along with the plot growing more grim and serious.
On the flipside, we have the ongoings of the always indifferent and unpleasantly smarmy Dr. Knox. We first meet the professor during a prim and proper dinner whilst having a polite, somewhat intellectual discussion on the moralities of dissecting the human flesh and how one acquires a cadaver. The sequence immediately follows the previous conversation between Burke and Hare, serving as a sharp contrast and revealing obvious differences of 19th Century social classes. It's part of the beauty within the film, the clear divide of the two groups contributing to their beliefs and understanding of the dead. It's even more interesting as the story continues, with Burke and Hare desiring the same status as the wealthy and Knox's desire to increase his social prominence, that as respect for the dead lapses, so too does the respect for the living.
The three main medical students (Alan Tucker, Robin Hawdon and Paul Greaves) are unfortunately caught in the middle of the mess, both in social standing and the moral implications attached to the advancement of science and medicine. Tucker's character, in particular, starts off as an aspiring physician with some high moral standards who becomes romantically entangled with a young girl (Françoise Pascal) in a brothel. But when she ends up the latest paid cadaver for study, we see the hint of a kid questioning his position and ambitions. Neither Sewell nor the script digs much deeper than simply bringing up some of these notions, essentially pointing out the price for the progression of the sciences, especially when this was a period of skepticism towards early medical practices.
'Burke & Hare' is an amusing film about a serious subject matter, which director Vernon Sewell approaches with a lighthearted but respectful tone.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'Burke & Hare (1972)' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Redemption" label. Housed inside a normal blue keepcase, the Region A locked, BD25 disc goes straight to the main menu with a still photo of the cover art and music playing in the background.
Although this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is taken from 35mm elements, as indicated on the back of the cover, the print used appears to be in a bad state of repair and in terrible need of a full restoration. The transfer into digital media also seems to have been done rather poorly as the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio is not perfectly centered, spending a good amount of the time slightly to the left of the screen and with visibly worn edges. In fact, much of the picture appears washed-out and faded from age, except for a few good scenes where colors, especially reds, are bright and bold.
Definition also is quite decent and detailed during close-ups, but those sequences only promise the potential of the elements being used if given a proper remaster. Blacks are all over the place though never really exceptional or worthwhile, coming across mostly as grayish blobs. Surprisingly, shadow delineation isn't lacking. Aside from the usual white specks and dirt floating across the screen, the transfer sadly shows a strange pulsating effect in some scenes, causing contrast levels to shift and waver every other second. While much of the film is generally pleasing to the eye, such artifacts which originate at the source tend to distract a good deal of its enjoyment.
The English uncompressed PCM stereo soundtrack comes in slightly better, but not by too much, showing further evidence that the print is in need of a proper remaster. Although dynamics are clean with pleasing acoustical details heard in the background, the range is not very extensive or the least bit broad. In fact, the track feels generally narrow and noticeably limited to the very center of the screen. Bass, on the other hand, is satisfying and appropriate for a 41-year-old movie, providing a bit of the action and music with decent presence. Dialogue reproduction, too, is well-balanced with plainly audible conversations, but vocals are also sadly accompanied by sibilance, which can be distracting. The lossless mix exhibits lots of noise and hissing throughout, adding to the overall disappointment of this high-rez presentation.
Though not very extensive, bonus features are still a good watch.
Vernon Sewell's final film, 'Burke & Hare,' is a quirky horror history loosely based on the real life Burke and Hare serial murders. With strong performances throughout, the wonderfully grim tale splendidly demonstrates the filmmaker's talent for balancing a controversial subject matter with a good deal of humor and appeal. The Blu-ray comes with an unfortunately poor audio and video presentation, taken directly from 35mm elements but showing a desperate need of restoration. Supplements are puny but watchable, making the overall package worthwhile only to long-time fans of the director and of the film.