Over a career spanning forty years, American film director, screenwriter, actor, and producer John Landis has produced an eclectic body of work. Although he is still best known for the 1980 cult hit The Blues Brothers (and to a lesser extent, the sequel Blues Brothers 2000 two decades later), his resume includes everything from TV spoof The Kentucky Fried Movie to frat flick National Lampoon’s Animal House, horror comedy An American Werewolf In London to a segment of sci-fi great Twilight Zone: The Movie, humorous adventure ¡Three Amigos! to culture clash feature Coming To America, and the famed Michael Jackson music videos for “Thriller” and “Black Or White”. Producing stints in television (including the serialised versions of Weird Science and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids), and on-screen appearances in The Muppets Take Manhattan and Spider-Man 2 also litter his history, although the previously prolific professional has been quiet of late. Indeed, his current feature Burke And Hare marks his first stint behind the lens of a feature film since 1998’s Susan’s Plan, with the helmer making his return with a black comedy treatment of an infamous series of Edinburgh murders dating back to 1827 and 1828.
Sharing a first name, a flat and a series of less than successful entrepreneurial endeavours, William Burke (Simon Pegg, Paul) and William Hare (Andy Serkis, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll) survive by the skin of their teeth in Scotland’s capital. Times are tough, and their swindles hawking substandard goods to the city’s citizens are often discovered, ensuring the duo are a constant source of disappointment to Hare’s wife Lucky (Jessica Hynes, Son Of Rambow). When word of the city’s shortage of cadavers for medical use reaches the plucky pair – courtesy of a turf war between medical professors Dr Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson, The Green Hornet) and his rival Dr Alexander Monro (Tim Curry, The Secret Of Moonacre) – their quick thinking ways turn a tenant’s unfortunate passing into a source of income. Struggling to keep up the demand as the doctors duel for the advancement of science and the favour of the king, and keen to keep the cash flowing in order to please their ladies (with opportunistic actress Ginny Hawkins, played by Confession Of A Shopaholic’s Isla Fisher, catching Burke’s eye), the friends turn to more sinister methods to continue their unique industry.
The real-life serial murderers William Burke and William Hare are undoubtedly the perfect playground for the legendary John Landis, getting behind the lens for the first time (at least on the big screen) since 1998’s Blues Brothers 2000 and Susan’s Plan. There is more than a little bit of Landis’ trademark humour in Burke & Hare, and despite his American heritage, the moors and bogs have never been quite as gruesomely hilarious as they were back in An American Werewolf in London, and as every workplace that has strapped on some ragged clothes to re-enact his video for Micheal Jackson’s “Thriller” can attest, Landis knows his way around a rotting corpse. Indeed, Ashworth and Moorcraft’s script wastes no time in not only showing us the maggot-ridden bodies, but in letting us know (via a fourth-wall breaking executioner, played by comedian Bill Bailey) that it is in on the joke as well. The problem is, despite quite a number of successful laughs to be found here, the joke just isn’t that witty. Instead, the film meanders through a set of episodic set-ups, many of which are telegraphed well in advance, and when the laughs do come, they are more of a smirk than an outright chuckle.
Simon Pegg’s run of hit-and-miss roles of late – from the high-profile Star Trek, and lead roles in mediocre Run Fatboy Run and How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, and the winner Paul – continues in a less than holistic portrayal of Burke. Aside from the constant reminders that he fancies the would-be-MacBeth Isla Fisher, we aren’t given much of a reason as to why he would commit a series of grisly murders. Yet it is a farce, after all, and it doesn’t necessarily have to make sense, but it should make at least a little bit when it strives for dark and comic. Serkis and Pegg’s Spaced co-star Jessica Hynes play the other half of the scheming couple gleefully, with their lip-smacking joyousness possibly the most grounded thing about the murders. Everything else is a bit of a kitchen sink affair, with a veritable who’s who of British comedians and actors making cameos, including a delightfully macabre one from Christopher Lee, and the always self-effacing Ronnie Corbett as a Captain of the Guard. The comedy relies a little too much on “And that’s the origin of that” anachronisms, with characters purportedly inventing half of the milestones of the twentieth-century. Yet behind the severed limbs and largely directionless script, there is still a bit of fun to be had in this very old-fashioned Ealing comedy.
The Reel Bits: An uneven comedy of gruesome errors, carried for the most part by a highly skilled set of comedians and thesps. The script tends to meander when it should stab the point home, and the twisted craftsmanship of Landis is just missing from this outing. The swift pace masks some of the dull bits, but everybody involved has done better.
Burke And Hare was released on May 12, 2011 in Australia by Paramount Pictures.