Serial killer stories: From Burke and Hare to Tales Of The Grim Sleeper

It was late, I was tired and I needed cheering up and I found this great comedy on TV that I’d never seen before which did just the job. Burke and Hare, directed by John Landis in 2010 and starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, is a rollicking love song to Edinburgh’s architecture, its Gothic medical pioneering past , its lowlife and its ghosts. But crucially it’s a fantasy black comedy about a real life pair of murderers who killed vulnerable people to supply fresh cadavers to a renowned surgeon who asked no questions but paid well. While I grimaced with the joy of a horror movie fan at the old fashioned physical special effects that created worm ridden corpses and snapped rigor mortis hardened bodies to fit herring barrels, most critics it seems turned away with distaste. Was there something fundamentally, morally unacceptable about making a screwball comedy about such men?

The question was on my mind the next day when I interviewed Nick Broomfield about his new film Tales Of The Grim Sleeper for Front Row on Radio 4. It’s about the case of the man thought to be America’s worst serial killer. South Central LA is where Lonnie Franklin Junior, currently awaiting trial, was, it seems, able to prey on vulnerable drug addicted prostitute women for 25 years because, in the LAPD’s own slang code, the police labeled the corpses they found as “NHIs” – No Human Involved. They didn’t bother to do proper forensics or to alert the public. More than a hundred women are thought to have been tortured and murdered by one man.

The film is beautiful to look at, though in a completely different way to Burke and Hare’s Ealing comedy Edinburgh. Instead of the Gothic drama of those windy cobbled streets, Broomfield shows how South Central LA can be at first glance as beautiful as the rest of Los Angeles. The skies are as blue, the palm trees as tall and the street architecture as cool. Only when Broomfield drives close to the pavement with Pam, the former prostitute who helps him trace survivors of Franklin’s violence, do we see that the young woman they’re talking to isn’t properly dressed, because she’s touting for trade to pay for crack.

Broomfield shot the film using a big camera normally only used for major feature films. “I wanted to make the people and the situation look as beautiful as I could,” Broomfield explained. “I didn’t want to make a dingy film about poor people. So I think the imagery, if anything, celebrates the dignity of the people and their beauty and their incredible articulate way of talking about themselves and their situation. And for a subject that’s pretty tough there’s a great deal of humour in it. There are some very sparkly wonderful people in it.”

Pam is the heart of the film. Broomfield talks of her having a kind of Richard Pryor-esque motormouth. After our interview I told him of my unease about watching Burke and Hare. There are so many dramas and even comedies about fictional serial killers. Can you, should you do that about real murderers? Is it just about enough time passing? In 50 years could the equivalent of Richard Pryor make a jokey Burke and Hare comedy about this apparently funloving guy who could with his big stash of porn and his not untypical attitude to prostitute women?

Stephen Sondheim’s musical of Sweeney Todd, the mythical demon barber of Fleet Street is back in the West End in its latest revival. Is a musical ok, like all the Sherlock/Jack The Ripper Victorian murder culture, because the theme is still dark? Is prurient fascination superior to comedy using the names of real killers?

Burke and Hare life and death masks in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (photo copyright Samira Ahmed No reuse)

Burke and Hare life and death masks in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (photo copyright Samira Ahmed No reuse)

If you go to Edinburgh the city’s grisly past is central to its tourism. There are dozens of ghost tours that promise a fright night around Fleshmarket. The Edinburgh Dungeon has a special Burke and Hare attraction with a couple of rakishly handsome actors posing with shovels on the website.

Tombstone in Greyfriars graveyard, Edinburgh (photo copyright Samira Ahmed no reuse)

Tombstone in Greyfriars graveyard, Edinburgh (photo copyright Samira Ahmed no reuse)

 Perhaps all I’ve learned is that the cruelty of a few horrifies us so much, that sometimes we don’t know how to respond. We collect the relics, like Burke’s skeleton still on public display in Edinburgh, which is the final shot of Landis’ film. But investigating the crime properly is crucial; something the police failed to do in South Central LA. And the unease we feel at the way such stories are told is probably something to cherish.

This column first appeared in The Big Issue magazine. On sale weekly from street vendor or you can subscribe here.

Further listening/reading

My Front Row interview with Nick Broomfield (23 Mar 2015)



About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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