For eleven months between 1827 and 1828, William Burke and William Hare committed a series of seventeen murders in Edinburgh, Scotland in order to sell the bodies to Dr. Robert Knox of Edinburgh Medical College to be used in medical research. They were assisted with the killings by Burke’s mistress, Helen McDougal, and Hare’s wife, Margaret Laird. Their method of smothering their victims came to be known as "burking", in which they would smother the victim and compress their chest at the same time.
Now, that is the actual, true story of Burke & Hare. Numerous films have been made based on this story, both directly and indirectly. The best one I’ve ever seen, and one that I can’t recommend enough, is called I Sell the Dead. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy of that one. It’s pure awesomeness and one hell of a lot of fun.
The telling of the story, and the style in which it’s told has a lot to do with who’s making the film, and who wrote that particular incarnation of it. Some films based on this story are very dark and horrific, while others are more light and comical. This one happens to be one of the lighter, more comical films.
The story is basically what I said above. It’s based on the real story, though it’s a more light hearted version of it. In this film, Burke is played by a rather likeable Derren Nesbitt, and Hare is played by Glynn Edwards, who also played the police sergeant in The Blood Beast Terror. Considering that both films were made by the same director, this isn’t an overly surprising bit of casting, and Edwards did a great job with both roles.
While the film itself is generally not too bad, and has some surprise appearances from some very recognizable British actors, inluding Bob Todd (The Benny Hill Show) playing a small role as a constable, and James Hayter (Percival Tebbs – Are You Being Served?) playing a small role as a fellow doctor, and dinner guest of Dr. Knox (Harry Andrews), it really loses it’s direction in a huge way, in that it spends an inordinate amount of time in a local whore house. Very little of the time spent in the whore house has anything to do with the main story of the film, and yet if I had to guess, probably a full third of the film or more ends up revolving around it. In my opinion, they went for humor and titillation as a lazy way out of developing the actual story to a level where it would have elevated this film from being just ok, to actually quite good.
The performances in the film were really very good, even if the story wasn’t. Nesbitt and Edwards brought just the right about of sleaze and charm to their characters, and the one-eyed Dr. Knox came off as a very competent and inquisitive doctor who was willing to turn to unethical means to acquire bodies for his medical research and surgery demonstrations for his students.
The look of the film was very appropriate for the time it takes place in, and yet had the look of a studio where everyone is dressed by the costume designers. There were a great number of films made in the UK during this era had a similar look to them. For a perfect example of this, see H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine from 1960. It was made twelve years earlier, yet it still fell into the time period where this look and style of film were popular.
The sad part for me is that I really wanted to like this film, but problems with the slowness of the story, the overuse of the whorehouse setting and the fact that Burke became less and less likeable as the film went on really kind of ruined it for me. I was left feeling rather, "meh" about the film. It was ok, but for me it never rose above that.
The film was mastered in HD from the 35mm negative. I’ve seen some people complain about the quality, but I honestly though it looked perfectly fine. I’m not sure what they were watching, but I thought it looked quite good. For special features, it has a featurette called, "Grave Desires: Corpses on Film," an interview with Dr. Patricia MacCormack, an interview with actress Francoise Pascal and the original theatrical trailer.
While it’s not bad, it could have been better. I think the best thing to do would be to see it and decide for yourself. For me, it was just ok.
If you’d like to find out more about this film, you can check out its page on the Kino Lorber website here, and if you’d like to pick yourself up a copy of the blu-ray, you can get it from Amazon here.