Grave Robbing, Murder and a Few Laughs

'Burke and Hare'

by W. Scott Poole

2 February 2012

I wish I could say this was the triumphal return of a great director rather than just a decent rental.
cover art

Burke and Hare

Director: John Landis
Cast: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom WIlkinson

US DVD: 20 Dec 2011

You don’t find grave robbing funny? Obviously you’ve missed out on the joys of the resurrectionist farce. If you didn’t catch I Sell the Dead (2008), a story of ghoulish entrepreneurship mixed with the supernatural, then you probably haven’t been introduced to this particular brand of comedic horror.

You’ve got another chance with John Landis’ Burke and Hare, the “true” story of the world’s two most infamous body thieves (excepting Dr. Frankenstein himself). These two fairly despicable characters murdered 17 people between 1827 and 1828 in order to sell the bodies to an anatomy lecturer at Edinburgh Medical College. Hare testified against Burke, leading to his partner’s hanging. He was publicly dissected at the same medical college where he sold his wares and where his skeleton appears on display today.

It might seem impossible to make all this funny, but Burke and Hare certainly has the right formula. An ideal cast, director Landis and a script that, while flawed, manages to encourage some sympathy for its mass-murdering duo. It’s charming and sometimes will make you smile. And it’s also disappointing and ultimately unsatisfying.

There are the expected grotesqueries played for laughs. We get public executions as Terry Gilliam might show them, graveyard humor and stiff corpses that refuse to fold into wooden barrels. Landis, as he makes clear in the bonus features, hoped to capture the tone of ‘50s Ealing Studio productions like The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets. In other words, a balance of humor, elegance and horror.

He’s going for much the same here and there are some high concept humor moments. Isla Fisher’s “Ginny” (Burke’s love interest) creates a running joke with her “first all female production of Macbeth.” Nineteenth century science and its fascination with vivisection are endlessly parodied. And, good grief, there are even several jokes at the expense of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Given the topic, the humor is surprisingly understated in a way that doesn’t fit with Landis’ directorial style or Pegg and Serkis’ comedic possibilities. You would think that a comedy about grave robbing might really pull out the stops.

But it doesn’t, and so none of this ever really catches fire. The picture never becomes as funny as it wants to be or as we want it to be. Perhaps part of the problem is a script that’s smart but tends to be too sweet for its own good. Simon Pegg has to play Burke as a sensitive soul who sacrifices himself for love, perhaps a necessary trope to keep us on the serial killer’s side but one that cloys. A darker film would have been a better film and a Sweeny Todd sensibility still could have been a vehicle for Landis’ legendary abilities.

This being a Landis picture, it’s not surprising to see some movie legends pop up in minor roles, a device the director has used before. Christopher Lee makes an appearance to give a deathbed speech about the Napoleonic Wars with bagpipes rising in the background…just before he becomes a commodity on the dissection market. His turn as “Old Joseph” is one of the most memorable moments in the film.  Bill Bailey has a few minutes as an executioner who complains about Burke and Hare making money off murder. Even special effects god Ray Harryhausen has a cameo as a doctor.

The bonus features are outstanding with numerous short, but detailed interviews. These 11 interviews run for about an hour. Simon Pegg describes how his interest in the script stemmed from the complexity of the characters and how it prevents us from “mapping concepts of evil” onto them. Landis also notes how the script took “loathsome” historical characters into romantic heroes. This was, Landis said, “very perverted and very funny”. In concept yes, in execution not so much.

The DVD also contains a substantial “behind the scenes” feature and about ten deleted scenes. Annoyingly, neither the deleted scenes nor the interviews have a “Play All” feature.

Horror fans will enjoy this one even though it’s not a horror film by any stretch of the imagination.  You are likely a fan of some or all of the cast and their performances here are well worth seeing. Moreover, and stunningly, this is Landis’ first theatrical release since 1998 and worth a watch for that reason alone. I wish I could say this was the triumphal return of one of our greatest directors rather than simply a decent flick worth a rental.

Burke and Hare


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