Tales of the Resurrectionist

Yeah, that would be an awesome title for a story collection, wouldn’t it? This is especially true if you are familiar with the definition of the term resurrectionist which refers to a body snatcher.

Unfortunately, this is not an announcement about a new project I have started working on.
1 This post is another double review. The movies in question are Burke and Hare and I Sell the Dead.

Standard warning regarding potential spoilers.

Let me start off by saying that I enjoyed both films and would recommend both of them. The second thing I need to tell you is that despite the subject matter, both films are more or less comedies.

Yep, that’s right, comedies about body snatching.

For those unfamiliar with the whole grave robber/body snatcher trade, the need for fresh corpses for dissection in the various medical schools in the 1800s coupled with a distinct lack of people donating their remains to said colleges created a niche market. Up until the 19th century medical schools had their pick of executed bodies, but as this form of judgment tapered off the supply dried up. As we all know, nature and commerce abhor a void, so the grave robbing trade sprung up. The most famous pair of resurrectionists were a pair of Williams: William Burke and William Hare.

Up the close and down the stair
but and ben with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.

Burke and Hare were a couple of Irish immigrants who had moved to Scotland for work. When the work dried up, the tumbled upon a new method of making money: selling cadavers to anatomist
3 Dr. Robert Knox. When there were no fresh cadavers to be had at the grave yard, the two turned to murder to insure a steady supply. They are credited with 16 murders (The West Port murders). The method used against many of their victims, suffocation by compressing the torso by applying weight (typically by sitting on the individual’s chest), became known as Burking.4

So, enough with the history lesson. I only mention this so potential viewers have some background going into the films, both of which are loosely based on the exploits of Burke and Hare. In fact the film
Burke and Hare begins by announcing that it is an account of the actions of the pair and that everything portrayed in it is true except for the parts that are not. There is a scene in I Sell the Dead in which a bartender says “There would be no Burke without the little Hare here,” referring to the main characters Willy Grimes and Arthur Blake.

Both films feature amazing casts. Burke and Hare are portrayed by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, respectively. The film opens with a bit of narration from Bill Bailey who plays a hangman. Tom Wilkinson plays Dr. Knox and Tim Curry plays his nemesis Dr. Monro. One of the first to be burked is none other than Christopher Lee. There are a ton of other brilliant actors. Quick eyed viewers will also recognize stop-motion artist extraordinaire Ray Harryhausen in one of the final scenes. John Landis directs.

Burke and Hare gives a somewhat silly account of the exploits of the two serial killers. There are failed attempts at murder (the staircase scene is hysterical), bodies which escape the pair, and Simon Pegg is wonderful as Burke attempts to win the love of an actress by using some of his new found wealth to finance her all female production of MacBeth. By the end of the film we feel bad for the poor sad sack Burke. The interplay between Hare and his wife is similarly amusing as we see that once again behind any successful man is a woman pushing him to better himself.

I Sell the Dead has its fair share of recognizable people as well. Grave robber Arthur Blake is everyone’s favorite hobbit Merry Brandybuck -- Dominic Monaghan. He spends much of his time confessing to Father Duffy played by Ron Perlman. When the two main characters, Willy Grimes (Larry Fessenden) and Arthur Blake (Monaghan) first start off robbing graves, they do so at the behest of Dr. Quint portrayed by Angus Scrimm. The movie is written and directed by Glenn McQuaid who wrote and directed one of the segments in the film V/H/S.

Burke and Hare, this film starts out with an execution. However this time it is one of the grave robbers, Willy Grimes. The story is then told as a series of flashbacks, including some footage from McQuaid’s short film The Resurrection Apprentice upon which the film is based.

There are just as many laughs in
I Sell the Dead, but this film is a bit odder. Where Burke and Hare stuck to the facts, more or less, I Sell the Dead takes a strange turn when Grimes and Blake discover that while there is good coin to be made selling cadavers to anatomists, there is better money to be made selling more unique specimens to special collectors. The two then proceed to track down the remains (and oft times not quite dead bodies) of supernatural beings. In doing so they fall afoul of another gang of ghouls who specialize in the supernatural. The two are spurred on by Fanny Briers (Brenda Cooney) who convinces them to...

Oh, I’m not giving that away. Let’s just say that there are a couple of twists at the end.

As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed both films. If you are looking for an evening of humorous horror, you won’t go wrong with either one. Or do what I did and watch them both.

1 Although...

2 No, I have too many irons in the fire right now as it is.

3 The Anatomist. Another great title.

4 I know I said enough with the history lesson, but I always found it both ironic and fascinating that part of Burke’s sentence, handed down after a one day trial on Christmas day 1829 by Lord Justice-Clerk was:

"I am disposed to agree that your sentence shall be put in execution in the usual way, but accompanied with the statutory attendant of the punishment of the crime of murder, viz.- that your body should be publicly dissected and anatomized. And I trust, that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance of your atrocious crimes."

William Burke’s skeleton was indeed preserved and is (along with his death mask and a life mask of William Hare) part of the permanent collection on exhibit at the Anatomy Museum of Edinburgh Medical School, the very place he supplied anatomy specimens.