Brit Horror On Blu-ray: THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR And BURKE & HARE

Charlie Hobbs, Contributing Writer
The latest batch of Redemption Films titles on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino are a pair of late period Vernon Sewell shockers from the late '60s-early '70s. The Blood Beast Terror (1968, Spine #14) is a period piece creature feature starring Peter Cushing in one of his least enduring roles, while Sewell's swan song, Burke & Hare (1972, Spine #15) is a significantly more enjoyable film about a pair of notorious British graverobbers, a tale recently adapted with Simon Pegg (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead) and Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) in the title roles. The pair make for an interesting evening of film, but one is vastly superior to the other, and it wouldn't be the one you'd think at first glance.

Vernon Sewell was never a big name director. Even with thirty something features under his belt, he never broke into the mainstream consciousness, but was instead a faceless staple of B-grade films of all genres. Apart from the pair of films in this column, he's probably best known for 1952's Ghost Ship and the film that he made between these two, The Curse of the Crimson Altar. However, these two probably stick most in the minds of horror fans.

The Blood Beast Terror
is painfully dull. Peter Cushing phones it in as a police inspector on the trail of a bizarre murderer who drains his victims of blood. When he happens upon the estate of an eccentric entomologist strange things start to happen, but you never really care. The characters are so roughly sketched and the action so implausible and slow moving that the film never builds any momentum. It doesn't help that the creature in the film, a giant were-moth is perhaps the most pathetic creature this side of Edward D Wood, Jr. None of the revelations carry any scares, by the time the true perpetrator was unmasked, I was more concerned with the poor state of my own cuticles than anything happening on screen.

Even an actor as talented and well-heeled as Peter Cushing is no guarantee of success. Even so, he is still the best part of the film, simply because he has a presence. The rest of The Blood Beast Terror is firmly a "so bad it's just really, really bad"  experience that I can't recommend but to the heartiest of masochists.Unless you're an obsessive and, like me, need the spine numbers to line up, you can skip this one.

burkehareblu.jpgThankfully, Sewell finished his career on a high note, with the bawdy necrocentric comedy, Burke & Hare. The titular duo are professional graverobbers, or resurrectionists in the parlance of the time, providing bodies to medical schools for examination and dissection at a time when such acts were still considered desecration and sinful. When they realize that, in spite of their hard work at the graveyard, they still aren't making enough money to live a decent life, they hatch an evil scheme. Burke & Hare begin abducting indigents and bums, people who won't be missed and hastening their journey to the great beyond in order to collect on their mortal form. One day they kidnap the wrong boy, and the noose begins to tighten, will they make it out alive?

Glynn Edwards (also in The Blood Beast Terror) as Hare and Derrin Nesbitt as Burke are a perfect pair. Hare is the brawn and Burke the brains, they do their work with gusto, unfortunately, Burke forgets the first rule of making money by nefarious means. Keep a low profile. The more flamboyant his actions, the more careless the two become, leading to their eventual downfall. There is no doubt that Burke is a walking ball of charisma, though, and it is his charm that allows the viewer to connect in a positive way with this pair of ne'er do wells.

Strangely, the film also features a strange side plot involving a brothel than only really comes into play in the final moments. However, this subplot allows Sewell to include some cheesecake to the proceedings, including the lovely Francoise Pascal, who played the unforgettable pixie in Jean Rollin's The Iron Rose. There is probably too much time spent at the brothel, which is a strange thing to say, as the film is a bit exploitative, but there are moments when it does slow down the pacing. It feels very much like two different films, the story of Burke & Hare and the story of the prostitutes and their clients, a story which only resolves itself in the final moments.

I truly enjoyed Burke & Hare, it is a wonderful comic romp through Georgian era England. A country which held firmly to its religious roots, but at the same time sought knowledge through the application of science, leading to conflicts like the one between the lack of availability of dissection subjects and the business of profiting from graverobbery. I'll definitely watch this one a dozen times before I dig The Blood Beast Terror out of the hole I buried it in after I was finished with it.

The Discs:

Kino and Redemption have a policy of not doing too much digital restoration work on their Blu-ray releases. They do some, but they have been vocal about being very judicious about what is and is not acceptable in terms of digital tinkering. As a result, the quality of their HD releases can vary wildly, and that is exactly the case with these two releases. The Blood Beast Terror is in much better condition than Burke & Hare, and looks pretty damned good. I don't want to go into too much detail because I might inadvertently inspire you to buy it, but it's a solid release, though bare bones. Unfortunately, Burke & Hare is much worse for the years of wear. The image is muddy and the contrast fluctuates visibly throughout the film. It's as though the film were warped or water damaged, the brightness pulsates for most of the film and it is very distracting. The washed out, brownish colors I can tolerate because many films from that era look that way, however the brightness issues are far more damning. However, I'd still recommend the film because it is pretty fantastic, and fairly reasonably priced the last time I checked.

In terms of extras, only Burke & Hare gets anything significant, but that's how it should be. The less I know about The Blood Beast Terror, the better. There is a wonderful interview with Francoise Pascal, obviously shot at the same time as The Iron Rose interview, who is very open about her experience. The second, and more interesting, feature is a longer discussion with Dr Patricia MacCormack about the culture of the time, as well as the history of corpses on film. It is a well reasoned, quite erudite sort of oral essay. I really enjoyed it, and I believe that any fan of these films would be a fan of her featurette.

As if it weren't obvious, I highly recommend checking out Burke & Hare and skipping The Blood Beast Terror. Purchase links are below, do it.

The Blood Beast Terror Special Features:
- Theatrical Trailer
- Photo gallery

Burke & Hare Special Features:
- "Grave Desires: Corpses on Film" an interview wit Dr. Patricia MacCormack
- Interview with actress Francoise Pascal
- Theatrical Trailer
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