Burke & Hare (1972)

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Burke & Hare (1972)
Cast: Derren Nesbitt, Glynn Edwards, Yootha Joyce, Dee Shenderey
Director: Vernon Sewell
Nutshell: set in the 1820’s and dark happenings in a town ravaged by sleaze, disease and pestilence…now a string of disappearing bodies and mysterious deaths.

Stepping back to the 1820’s and the world of grime, pestilence and flourishing brothels and some dark dabbling in the field of medicine for this reimagination of the murky world inhabited by the infamous grave-robbers, thugs and murderers from Scotland; Burke and Hare.

The film follows these two struggling to make ends meet in a dreary world with badgering, nagging wives nattering away and not a penny to even buy a drink at the local.  Times are hard indeed for William Burke and William Hare but through their grim drudgery they find a way of exploiting a situation and easily justifying their greed and cruelty as “saving their victims from an inevitable and horrible demise”.

There is a growing need to cadavers at the medical universities and good money to be made from the trade in cadavers but the freshest cadaver fetches the highest price and the less elderly it is, higher still.  Slowly, aided and abetted by some ghastly wives they are spurred on to unimaginable horrors until they take one risk too many.

The film starts promisingly with a feel that would have done Hammer proud but it soon becomes evident that the film leans more towards the lighter side of horror rather than the more macabre, and the theme song at the onset dictates the way forward.  From an engaging start the film then decides to take a turn and there are lengthy comic interludes that are reminiscent of “Porky’s” featuring the French Bombshell whom everyone in the Asian Sub Continent had a massive crush on from “Mind Your Language”. Francoise Pascal.  And for those inclined, she spends more of her screen time with unclothed than clothed.  There are silly little perversions going on in the brothel all pointing to the post “Carry On” era that had become a little more permissive by 1972 but still very, very tame by today’s standards of censorship.  The film is primarily a Bawdy Sex Romp of a typically British style, the kind popularized by the “Confessions of a Window Cleaner” genre of cinema but there is a fascinating story of Burke & Hair which is frustratingly reduced to a comic pantomime act.  There are certainly some sequences, especially those featuring the wives that are gripping and moments of fleeting tension but ultimately it is quite clear what the star of the show is and those are the breasts of the delightful Ms. Pascal and numerous bare bottoms on view.

There have been other films made on the two famous Scottish killers but this will perhaps not be the most accurate even if the sets and wonderful and the squalor quite tangible.  The films back ground score is also sometimes reminiscent of Hammer at their best but the film frustrates for the frequency and length of the silly sexual romps and the rather school-boyish, “locker-room” level of events in general including one lengthy discussion of diarrhea which was truly foul.

A film that promised much but then peters out not knowing quite what it wants to be; a thriller or a bawdy comic sex romp of an infantile level or a pastiche period peace Rocky Horror Show prototype.  None the less interesting largely for representing the kind of “sexy” British exploitation cinema of the 70s.  Silly piffle despite the good acting and excellent sets.  And the moral of this story was one of expectations.  I expected something macabre, even remotely eerie or scary.  Had I Known exactly where this film was coming from, things may have been different.  That said, it was marketed as a horror film and in all respects, has to qualify as one, despite the diversions of the bawdy variety.  Less interesting as a period piece of the 1820s as much as it is a fascinating glimpse into early 1970s post “Carry On” bawdy sex comedies of the Robin Askwith kind…the kind you could watch with the wife.  A bit cheeky but well within limits. And finally, that song…how can that blood curdling song not receive a due nod for its sheer splendor?

 

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