Tomorrow Kino Lorber’s Redemption line will be releasing two films – his last and his third from last, as it happens – by director Vernon Sewell: The Blood Beast Terror from 1968, and Burke & Hare from 1971. Burke & Hare is, of course, about the notorious grave robbers in 19th Century Scotland who sold fresh corpses to doctors, who purchased them in the name of science, donated corpses being rare at the time, until they decided people weren’t giving up the ghost fast enough or in sufficient quantities to satisfy their financial needs and therefore resorted to murder. I’ve now seen five different films inspired by this piece of criminal history, including John Landis’s recent non-remake Burke & Hare, Freddie Francis’s not great but still not bad adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s screenplay The Doctor and the Devils, and Val Lewton and Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher, for which the Burke & Hare story is only a loose inspiration, but which remains the gold standard for this sort of thing.
Anyway, these Kino Lorber releases are instructive of a certain non-Hammer, non-Amicus strain of late 60s, early 70s British horror, that strain being of the “Well, this stuff’s pretty popular, so…” school of thought. Which is not to say, or even imply, that either film lacks entertainment value, but I have yet to figure out if they’re any good or not. It would also seem to be helpful that while The Blood Beast Terror is ostensibly a serious horror film, Burke & Hare is intended to be something of a black comedy (as is Landis’s film), but the lines between the two films and the two approaches can become rather blurry. The Blood Beast Terror, in particular, is a strange film. It stars a somewhat weary-looking Peter Cushing as a police detective investigating a series of deaths that could be the result of wild animal attacks, or possibly murder – whichever it is, the bodies have been almost drained of blood. Meanwhile, there’s this doctor named Menninger (Robert Flemyng) who is interested in moths, and is conducting strange experiments, and who has a weird, possibly lusty, daughter (Wanda Ventham), a doctor who very clearly is at the center of this whole thing, though what “this whole thing” actually is won’t be made clear, or clear-ish, until near the very end. But it has something to do with a moth creature. That much we find out way earlier.
So that’s Burke & Hare. It hits some good notes along the way, such as the scene where Burke and Hare, having murdered only the one person at this point, find themselves talking with their respective wives/girlfriends about where all this money suddenly came from, and gradually, but eerie ease, picking up as a group the idea that murder really might be the way to go with this, permanently. It’s sort of chilling in how unadorned the whole scene is. But again, crucially, it’s never funny. The music by Roger Webb seems to filtered in from the next studio over, which was recording music for Tom & Jerry. And I love Tom & Jerry (the original ones, not the later ones where they’re friends, or the weird-ass “Dicky Moe” ones), but using that style of music to accompany the madam going from peephole to peephole, watching all manner of crazy bedroom hijinks, all of which are essentially the same thing, and then shaking her head as though to say “What a world!” is, I have to say, ill-advised. Not that this tone paired with occasional callousness towards the fates of the film’s characters isn’t interesting, in a way, but it all piles up into a weird sort of airy mass of non-Amicus, non-Hammer silliness.