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The Horrors Of Burke And Hare (1972)

There have been some bad films made on these islands, of that there can be no doubt. Whether due to a lack of budget or a lack of talent, somehow people managed to turn out the most astonishing dross. The Horrors Of Burke And Hare is one of those films – a watching experience so dire that a day after watching it, you start wondering whether it was all just a particularly bad dream.

Basically yet another remake of The Flesh And The Fiends, it’s a film which mixes extreme violence with slapstick comedy and plenty of “tits oot” Carry On sauciness, yet is still dull enough to send the viewer to sleep. And any film which features this much naked female flesh but only elicits snores should be in line for some kind of award.

The bawdiness begins with the opening credits, which play out over a rollicking song by The Scaffold with the most astonishingly tasteless lyrics (“They’ll find you – they’re behind you! / Take care, they’re out to rape you, They’re out to drape you, With white…”).

Surprise, surprise, the opening scene is of grave robbers at work, the camera crash-zooming in on the exhumed body like it’s some kind of shock that that’s what they’ve managed to unearth. A body? In a grave? Whatever next? Meanwhile, Hare (Glynn “Dave out of Minder” Edwards, who runs a boarding house, has sussed out that he doesn’t necessarily have to dig bodies up, he can simply knock off his tenants and sell the bodies to local medical men, ably helped by his best mate, Burke (Derren “that bloke in the background of that film – you know the one, he always plays that type of bloke… yes, him – I think he was in Where Eagles Dare” Nesbitt).

The local doctor’s name is Knox (Harry “played the big rabbit in Watership Down” Andrews), and he’s holding a boisterous party at his home when Burke and Hare turn up with Hare’s latest deceased tenant. Knox’s guests are desperate to inject as much space-filling humour as possible into the film during their scene, telling not one but two superfluous jokes (ah, the old “I should have stuck them up my arse” suppositories rib-tickler, how I laughed). After taking delivery of the body, Knox explains that body stealing isn’t illegal, per se, and after all, how else is he going to get the raw materials to practise on?

Knox’s young student doctors then decide to visit a brothel (a handy addition which means that the makers can pile in as many topless lovelies as possible), where there are much saucy shenanigans going on, all accompanied to some knocked-off Carry On music. It’s at about this point that the viewer contemplates giving up the will to live. Even the sight of gorgeous Hammer starlet Yutte Stensgaard in the all-together isn’t enough to stop the finger from straying towards the fast-forward button. Every scene is over-long and talky, there’s been a murder and a dissection, but no blood and no horror. The sets all look like empty rooms and the leads are uniformly awful. And let’s face it, we’ve already seen Stensgaard’s marvellous knockers, so there’s not even those to look forward to.

“If you two apes can’t do in an old tramp, Helen and I will!”

Burke and Hare’s wives (Yootha Joyce and Dee Shenderey) then come up with the idea of luring people back to the boarding house to murder them (“If you two apes can’t do in an old tramp, Helen and I will!”), and the group embark on a killing spree, with a brief musical interlude showing them spending more and more money as the bodies mount up. And back at the brothel, one of Knox’s students has embarked on an affair with a prostitute. Which is never a good idea.

And so we come to this film’s main problem, which is that the whole sordid business was given the bona fide classic treatment – featuring Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance and Billie Whitelaw – over a decade earlier, in the astonishing The Flesh And The Fiends. This overlong ragbag of softcore nudity, unfunny jokes and nameless “talent” doesn’t stand a chance in comparison, and nowhere is that clearer than in the death of Daft Jamie (David Pugh). In the former film, the murder of this simple lad (then played by camp icon and one-time Hammer Frankenstein Melvyn Hayes) is a brutal and relentless last-gasp attempt by the murderers to stay one step ahead of the game. It has tremendous power, and is still shocking even to jaded 21st century eyes (he ain’t ‘alf covered in pig shit, mum). In The Horrors Of Burke And Hare, the lad puts up a spirited defence, but there’s no horror there – and the murder, when it eventually happens, is yet another bloodless, off-screen event.

Meanwhile, back at the brothel, we’re treated to yet more interminable scenes of the patrons tamely role playing with a variety of bloomer-clad lovelies. This goes on for so long that the inevitable conflagration, when it finally arrives, is something of a blessed relief (British horror films must feature a raging inferno scene, even if, as in this case, they don’t forward the plot particularly). Finally, our two merry murderers (now “blinged up” to a ridiculous extent thanks to their nefarious activities) make a fatal mistake – after Burke has enjoyed a threesome with Yutte and equally chestily blessed 70s starlet Francoise Pascal (who plays the medical student’s girlfriend, Marie), he kills Marie and takes her body to Knox. Her lover, looking forward to another comedy lecture, is less than happy to see his topless paramour laid out on the slab, and the hunt is on for her murderers.

Falling somewhere between an ill-judged black comedy, a 70s boob fest and a historical horror film, The Horrors Of Burke And Hare is a disaster from beginning to rubbish, unsatisfactory denouement. The only highlight is the sexy threesome towards the end, but if you’re that desperate to see Ms Stensgaard’s rack, you’ll find it a lot easier (and more rewarding) to track down a copy of the bad-in-a-good-way Lust For A Vampire instead. Honestly, you’ll thank me for it.

Director: Vernon Sewell; Writer: Ernie Bradford
Cast: Derren Nesbitt - Burke; Harry Andrews - Dr. Knox; Glynn Edwards - Hare; Yootha Joyce - Mrs. Hare; Françoise Pascal - Marie; Yutte Stensgaard - Janet; Robin Hawdon - Lord Angus McPhee; Alan Tucker - Arbuthnot; Dee Shenderey - Mrs. Burke; Joan Carol - Madame Thompson; Paul Greaves - Ferguson; David Pugh - Daft Jamie; James Hayter - Dr. Selby; Thomas Heathcote - Paterson; Duncan Lamont - Dr. Saint

Updated: March 21, 2010

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