Grave Robbing, Murder and a Few Laughs: 'Burke and Hare'

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

Burke and Hare

Director: John Landis
Cast: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom WIlkinson
Extras: 8
Rated: Not Rated
Distributor: IFC
Release date: 2011-12-20

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Forty years after its initial release, one of the defining albums of US punk rock finally gets the legacy treatment it deserves.

If you ever want to start a fistfight in a group of rock history know-it-alls, just pop this little question: "Was it the US or the UK who created punk rock?" Within five minutes, I guarantee there'll be chairs flying and dozens of bloodstained Guided By Voices T-shirts. One thing they'll all agree on is who gave punk rock its look. That person, ladies, and gentlemen is Richard Hell.

Keep reading... Show less

Tokyo Nights shines a light on the roots of vaporwave with a neon-lit collection of peak '80s dance music.

If Tokyo Nights sounds like a cheesy name for an album, it's only fitting. A collection of Japanese city pop from the daring vintage record collectors over at Cultures of Soul, this is an album coated in Pepto-Bismol pink, the peak of saccharine '80s dance music, a whole world of garish neon from which there is no respite.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.