Burkes and Hares

In From the Vault by John Tebbutt

How do you like your bodysnatching movies? Classy; sexy; or featuring 007 and Jean-Luc Picard?

Does anybody remember The Bride (1985)? It’s a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein, re-imagined as a feminist parable, with Sting in the role of Doctor Frankenstein, and Flashdance’s Jennifer Beals as his hot female monster. Clancy Brown’s in there too, as Frankenstein’s original monster, who runs off with his newfound friend “Reynaldo the Midget” (David Rappaport) to join the circus, run by crazy British comedian Alexei Sayle. Despite some effective moments, most viewers agree that the film’s thematic goals are a wee bit beyond it’s reach, and today The Bride is largely remembered for it’s bizarre casting choices and the fact that it was a Frankenstein film in a year in which the horror genre was dominated by Freddy and Jason sequels.
Oddly enough, it turns out that The Bride isn’t the only star-studded attempt at restarting the Gothic horror genre to come out in 1985. The Doctor and the Devils (1985) features Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea as a pair of 19th Century hoodlums who murder winos and other unfortunates in order to sell the corpses as dissection subjects for anatomy classes. If this plot line sounds familiar, it’s because it’s based on the real life crimes of Burke and Hare, two notorious criminals who terrorized 1820s Edinburgh, and also because another Burke and Hare movie, The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) appeared in this column two weeks ago.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xo9Wkisly-c] Well, The Doctor and the Devils gives us the same story again, only this time in colour, with a bigger budget, and with some odd casting choices that would look right at home in The Bride. Timothy Dalton plays the hubristic doctor who buys the corpses, and Julian Sands plays his morally conflicted assistant who falls for a grimy prostitute played by Twiggy. Yes, Twiggy. If that’s not enough, check out Patrick Stewart as a rival doctor who sports an embarrassingly bad comb-over.
Dalton delivers plenty of bombastic speeches about the importance of his medical research, while pooh-poohing any ethical questions regarding his methods. With his podium-pounding intensity and blatantly stated belief that the ends justify the means, his character is just centimetres away from sounding like a Bond villain, which is ironic, considering the role Dalton is most famous for. Perhaps he went to the Living Daylights audition expecting to play the bad guy. Rea and Pryce go one step further, and almost portray their roles as pantomime villains, rubbing their hands with glee and chanting “Fresh bodies! Fresh bodies!” with each kill. The characters come off as quite simplified from their earlier incarnations, and the film ends up much like The Bride; an interesting attempt to try something different, but otherwise a forgotten curio.
Another version of the Burke and Hare story is the imaginatively-titled The Horrors of Burke and Hare (1972), which has never been released on DVD. This one’s notable for it’s schizophrenic tone, which jumps between terror and cheerful farce. One minute we’re holding our breath as the next poor victim meets his end, and the next we’re watching giggling topless women run around playing tag with guys in Roman Centurion helmets. Sure, most versions of the story add some comic relief and a few scantily-clad prostitutes here and there, but Burke and Hare plays like Porky’s (1982) with a body count. In fact, it’s impossible not to think of the shower scene in Porky’s when the characters in Burke and Hare peer through hidden peepholes at frolicking prostitutes in a brothel. This brothel later catches fire when a dominatrix carelessly knocks over a lantern with her whip, leading to a tense but comic sequence in which topless call girls and judges in schoolboy uniforms frantically dress themselves while fleeing the scene. Not only is the movie filled with moments like this, but it’s theme song sounds like a bawdy pub jig of the sort normally filled with naughty descriptions of chambermaids and repeated use of the word “whoops”, but which instead actually refers to the historic murders in the lyrics. I can see why so many viewers were thrown by this; it’s as though an episode of “Masterpiece Theatre” has been spliced together with an extra-dirty episode of “The Benny Hill Show”. Still, I rather like the abrupt changes in tone, and any film which features Yutte Stensgaard and Francoise Pascal in a bare breasted threesome is okay in my book.
Both The Horrors of Burke and Hare and The Doctor and the Devils are pretty good movies which stay surprisingly close to the source material; they just can’t compare to The Flesh and the Fiends, which came earlier and covered the same story flawlessly, and with a sense of humanity that the later films only realized in short flashes. All three films have their merits, but in the end, The Flesh and the Fiends is the one you’ll remember.
Unless you’re a huge fan of Timothy Dalton. Or boobs.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_CvQbW34pI]




This column originally appeared in the December 6, 2007 issue of FFWD Weekly.