Written by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft
Directed by John Landis
There have been several films about the infamous true-life grave robbers William Burke and William Hare, including Freddie Francis’s 1985 The Doctor And The Devils and John Gilling’s 1959 The Flesh and The Fiends. Perhaps the most famous is Robert Wise’s 1945 classic The Body Snatcher, which starred both Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi. You can now add John Landis’s Burke and Hare to the list.
Burke and Hare marks Landis’s first feature theatrical release in twelve years, the last being 1998’s Susan’s Plan. Thankfully the director who gave us such classics as Animal House, An American Werewolf in London, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and The Blues Brothers still has a trick or two up his sleeve. Admittedly his latest feature pales in comparison to his earlier work, but Burke and Hare still manages to get more right than wrong.
Set in 1828 Edinburgh, the titular pair (Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis) realize they can make some quick cash by supplying cadavers to a world-class surgeon Dr Knox (Tom Wilkinson). Unfortunately, there is a shortage of bodies in and around the city. Burke and Hare don’t have the stomach for digging up rotting corpses, so instead they find a new way to produce them: by murdering innocent victims.
Pegg and Serkis – a late replacement for David Tennant – lead a smart ensemble who work well off of each other from the very start. Tom Wilkinson is appropriately hammy as the Scottish surgeon, and Tim Curry is terrific as the dueling doctor. But the real surprise is Ronnie Corbett as the Captain of the Guard who accidentally discovers Burke and Hare’s crooked scheme. Corbett is lively and engaging and, more importantly, consistently funny, thanks to his pitch-perfect comic timing. Some of the characters fall just short of cartoonish, and some scenes cross into too-broad satire, but the entire cast lunge into their characters with such enthusiasm, you can’t help but forgive those minor flaws. In fact the biggest disappointments are also the most pleasant surprises: Some notable guest appearances cameo throughout, only to disappear all too soon: see Christopher Lee die and Michael Winner thrown over a cliff.
Pegg and Serkis have difficult roles here, as they must remain likeable and sympathetic while simultaneously juggling comedy, slapstick and murder. Burke’s emotional dilemma and moral conscience rests unnaturally against the string of murders they commit, and the film’s attempt to effectively render Pegg’s romance with Ginny (Isla Fisher) feels undercooked. Still, Pegg and Fisher exhibit just enough chemistry to make the pairing work. Where the script truly stumbles, however, is in its absence of hilarious set-pieces or memorable dialogue. It’s great to see Landis working again, especially with a gifted cast, but most of the gags rely on age-old devices we’ve seen time and time again.
The film boasts high production values, most notably the excellent costume designs, Joby Talbot’s Scottish-flavoured score, the detailed production design and finally, John Mathieson’s cinematography, which captures the sordid period atmosphere. Landis clearly knows how to create the right tone and provides a great set for the characters to run around in. He also makes sure to contrast the silliness with some exaggerated violence and enough bloodshed to please genre enthusiasts.
Crafting a comedy commemorating two notorious serial killers isn’t an easy task but co-scriptwriters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft deserve credit for rewriting history and intertwining several subplots into the pic, including an assistant who invents photography and an all-female version of Macbeth.
Nothing is more subjective than comedy, but whether you laugh or not, Burke and Hare is an exceptionally well made Victorian-era horror-comedy about friendship, love and good old fashioned grave-robbing. Perhaps its unapologetically old-fashioned sensibility may put off contemporary audiences, but genre fans will rejoice knowing Landis has finally returned to form.