Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Vernon Sewell Double-Feature: The Blood Beast Terror and Burke & Hare

Among the most notable releases this month are two films making their Blu-ray debut from the late British cult filmmaker Vernon Sewell, courtesy of Kino Lorber’s Redemption label. These two films, The Blood Beast Terror and Burke & Hare, are given great upgrades on these new discs and they are an ideal introduction to Sewell’s most unique style.
The often-maligned Vernon Sewell was born in London on the fourth of July in 1903. Before passing away in Africa just before his 98th birthday in South Africa, Sewell directed nearly forty feature films as well as numerous British television series. Beginning with Morgenrot (a film which Sewell co-directed with Gustav Ucicky that was the first screened under Nazi-ruled Germany) in 1933 and ending with Burke & Hare in 1971, Sewell’s career was a varied one that saw him working in a large number of genres and with a great number of Britain’s most famous players.
While his early films often found him working mostly in dramas his 1947 comedic-chiller The Ghosts of Berkeley Square (a film whose tone predates the lewd Burke & Hare by more than two decades) saw a shift to more genre-oriented pictures. Sewell especially became aligned with action-packed thrillers throughout the fifties and early sixties, so he was a fairly natural choice to become one of Tigon British Film Productions go-to directors in the mid-sixties.
Tigon was founded by producer Tony Tenser in 1966, shortly after he had produced two of Roman Polanski’s great masterpieces (Repulsion and Cul-de-Sac). Looking to capitalize on the Hammer and Amicus empires, Tigon had just released two films (including Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers) before signing up Sewell to direct two pictures in 1968, the uber-strange Curse of the Crimson Altar (a cult favorite starring Barbara Steele and Christopher Lee) and The Blood Beast Terror (a film its star Peter Cushing would call the worst he ever made).
The Blood Beast Terror came to life via the pen of Peter Bryan, a less than prolific screenwriter who managed to deliver three of Hammer’s most distinctive features (The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Brides of Dracula and The Plague of the Zombies). The Blood Beast Terror was the last completed screenplay Bryan would come up with (his final two credits, Trog and Seven Deaths in Cat’s Eye, saw his source material being adapted) and while it doesn’t stand up to his great Hammer trio it’s an entertaining script and offers up a fairly fresh take on the classic monster film.
Cushing stars as Inspector Quennell, a detective working on a case involving a number of mutilated bodies that have turned up in a once peaceful British country-town. Quennell’s murder case takes an extremely odd turn when he meets up with a local entomologist named Mallinger (played nicely by Robert Flemyng), a man whose cracked experiments lie at the heart of the local bloody mystery.
The Blood Beast Terror has never been a particularly revered film, mostly due to how much Cushing publicly despised it, but it’s a better work than most have ever given it credit for. While it is undeniably silly, and it never fully comes together as a cohesive work of horror, The Blood Beast Terror benefits greatly from Sewell’s sometimes stylish (occasionally workmanlike) direction and a really great cast, which sees Cushing and Flemyng joined by Wanda Ventham, Glynn Edwards, Vanessa Howard and Roy Hudd.

Redemption’s new Blu-ray (and DVD) of The Blood Beast Terror looks really splendid and it is a major upgrade compared to their older release (put out as part of their Euroshock collection). Mastered from the original 35mm negative, this new release of The Blood Beast Terror really shows off cinematographer Stanley A. Long’s photography quite well and the new print allows us to at least enjoy the film as a visual treat during the sections where Bryan’s script drags. Long, a filmmaker in his own right, had also photographed Reeves’ The Sorcerers for Tigon and his work on The Blood Beast Terror is the most notable aspect of the film along with the performance of Peter Cushing, an artist who could be sublime even when working with material he hated.
Neither The Blood Beast Terror (released in The United States as The Vampire-Beast Craves Blood) nor The Curse of the Crimson Altar proved the hits Tigon so desperately needed in 1968 (the company would fold by the mid-seventies with Reeves' Witchfinder General, Jean Rollin’s The Nude Vampire and Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw being their greatest releases) and Sewell wouldn’t work with the company again. Sewell’s career was coming to a close as the sixties came to an end and it seemed like some work on the legendary British series The Avengers would mark his final chapter but then came the surprising Burke & Hare, easily one the best films Sewell ever signed his name to.

The West Port Murders occurred in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1827 and 1828. The serial killings were attributed to a couple of Irish immigrants named William Burke and William Hare, who sold the bodies of well over a dozen of their victims to local doctors for dissection and experimentation. While the real life case is among the most grizzly on film, Sewell’s film based on the two killers has much more in common with the bawdy British sex-comedies of the seventies rather than a typical serial-killer film. Burke & Hare is an incredibly strange work filled with as many exposed breasts and cheap-laughs as blood and dead-bodies. A tasteless but incredibly entertaining film, Burke & Hare finds the aging Sewell at his most confident and creative behind the camera and suggests that the best period of his career might have been ahead of him had he persevered.
Like The Blood Beast Terror, Burke & Hare benefits greatly from a talented cast and crew. Prolific cinematographer Desmond Dickinson really comes through for Sewell here giving the film’s more violent moments a dingy quality while the sexy boudoir sequences are positively opulent. Special mention must also go to the film’s title-track (from writer Norman Newell) that plays throughout the film. Sung by The Scaffold, this barroom blitz ditty takes the already strange Burke & Hare into the realm of the surreal and lends the film an extremely distinct flavor.
While the cast is filled with noteable British character actors (including Derren Nesbitt and Glynn Edwards), the films real stars are Francoise Pascal (looking absolutely stunning) and Yutte Stensgaard (seen here just after she made her unforgettable appearance in Hammer’s Lust for a Vampire). Burke & Hare really lights up when both Pascal and Stensgaard are on the screen, with a particularly crazy bedroom sequence providing the film perhaps its most memorable moment.
The bewitching Pascal, who would turn in one of the most moving performances of the seventies in Jean Rollin’s The Iron Rose about a year after Burke & Hare, is given an ‘introducing’ credit at the beginning of the film even though she had already appeared in almost half a dozen features by the 1971. Pascal is charming, funny and energetic and is the best thing about the film. The great lady is also featured on the disc’s supplementary material via a brief interview where she recalls working on the film and her fondness for Stensgaard, who would all but disappear from the screen after her appearance in Burke & Hare.

Some print damage is on hand throughout Redemption’s new Blu-ray for Burke & Hare but the film has never looked or sounded better and the Pascal interview (as well the featurette with Dr. Patricia MacCormack) make it among the most desirable releases of the year. More information on both Burke & Hare as well as The Blood Beast Terror can be found at Kino’s site and copies can be pre-ordered here at Amazon.

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