It could be argued whether this is really a horror film, but October rules because there are no rules, so away we go. Way back when in history, medical schools had a tough time procuring corpses for dissection and demonstration. Since gaps in the market tend to be filled, even when the fillers are gross weirdos, bodies were often supplied by gravediggers and corpse-looters. As competition got more heated and monetary reward became linked to the freshness of the corpses, anyone could probably predict the ultimate result.
Edinburgh, 1828. Doctor Knox (Peter Cushing, winking above) lucks into a fire sale on fresh corpses, supplied by local scumbags Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasance). As you might anticipate, the pair are killing drunks, tramps, and other ne'er-do-wells and then carting their bodies off to Dr. Knox's academy for medical studies.
Given the premise, you might not expect much from the film, but it's shockingly well-crafted. I think that the best part has nothing to do with murder and cadaver-buying. It's the scenes of believably improbable romance between young med student Chris (John Cairney) and local party girl Mary (Billie Whitelaw) that reach the film's highest heights. Both actors do a fine job at imbuing their characters with life and give us a subplot that brings dynamic change for the young lovers.
Two characters who don't change are Burke and Hare, unless getting more repulsive counts. Watching Donald Pleasance in this and in Wake in Fright recently made me a little sad. I'm sure that his last days were full of questions about Halloween at the expense of everything else he'd done. Pleasance is great here, going the extra mile to make his Hare as creepy as humanly possible. There's a scene in which he pantomimes a murder victim while the murder is happening that is just solid gold. His facial work throughout is just great. Rose is also a blast as the rough, primitive Burke.
And, surprise, Peter Cushing is good, too. Knox in this film is a sort of Frankenstein-style figure, forsaking conventional morality in pursuit of higher ideals. At one point, he downplays the importance of the individual while asserting how beneficial corpse study will be to his doctor grads. But, even though we know he knows where the bodies are coming from, he still seems more sympathetic than his rival doctors, who can't even tell aneurysms from abscesses.
It's pretty remarkable that a movie about Burke and Hare manages to incorporate class boundaries, medical ethics, and mob mentality as secondary themes, but here they all are. Being that this was filmed in 1959 or so, it's pretty tame when it comes to violence, although there are some literally squalid kill scenes. The overall atmosphere of decadence makes up for any missing squibs and latex, though, so don't worry and definitely check this one out.