John Landis has given us some great comedy films over the years, including The Blues Brothers, Animal House and Coming To America. Arguably his most well-loved film is the cult classic horror comedy An American Werewolf In London, a wry cocktail of horror and comedy that provokes as many screams as guffaws.
Having not made a feature film since 1998’s derided sequel effort, Blues Brothers 2000, Landis now brings us Burke And Hare, a macabre comedy based on the historical West Port murders. The real William Burke and William Hare murdered 17 people in the 1820s, at the behest of a private anatomy lecturer who needed cadavers for public dissection.
Our leading men here are played by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, so the result is considerably more frothy than the grisly history. We meet them as two hapless confidence tricksters, arriving in Edinburgh fresh off the boat from Donegal. When their lodger snuffs it, a chance encounter in a pub reveals the lucrative business of selling corpses to Dr. Robert Knox at Edinburgh University.
Demand increases exponentially as Dr. Knox races for an award from His Majesty the King, and Burke must earn a larger crust to appease his beguiling new lady friend, Ginny Hawkins, who wants to stage an all-female production of Macbeth. With the Edinburgh militia on their tails, how long can their body snatching continue?
Burke And Hare seems to have happened very quickly. It was only just over a year ago that the project was announced, and we heard that David Tennant was going to be playing William Hare. By January, right before the start of shooting, Tennant had dropped out, to be replaced by Andy Serkis. Then, mostly quiet, until the first and only trailer came out at the beginning of this month. Hopefully, you’ll forgive me for saying so, but this came together in very short order. And it shows in the finished product.
For the purposes of full disclosure, you should know that I fell prey to the curse of the absent multiplex projectionist while seeing this, and the projection of the film was just a little out of focus for the entire running time. I really should have complained, and in a less packed-out screening, I would have hopped over the knees of whichever viewers sat between me and the stairs. I liked the film enough that I’m going to give it a second viewing, but I can’t see that an awful lot will improve.
It’s not a bad film, by any stretch of the imagination. In many places, it’s very winning and often very funny. With the opening proclamation that this is based on a true story “except for the parts that are not”, the tone is set, but you can’t help but think they might as well have diverged from history a little more.
Over on Twitter, Simon Pegg is strongly arguing in favour of the film’s revisionist stance, and I agree with him in how the film does a fine job in challenging the preconception that Burke and Hare were evil murderers, and how it instead considers the wider context of the time. The film does deviate a bit from what you can read on Wikipedia about the murders, to make the characters more sympathetic and relatable, but I felt it didn’t go far enough to really surprise anyone.
It’s set in Scotland, but more specifically, in Movie Scotland. It’s not as bad as certain Hollywood interpretations, certainly. There’s not a set of bagpipes or a kilt to be found. Nonetheless, it somehow rings false, as if we’re just meant to find the setting quaint.
For instance, the cast manage Scottish accents with varying success, and I was impressed by Pegg’s improved Scottish accent in the opening reel. That was, until he transmuted to a better Irish accent later on, and realised that Burke was meant to be from Donegal. Other than that, his performance is great, and he musters a more accomplished Irish brogue than Isla Fisher, who’s a winsome love interest but a very unconvincing Scot.
Largely, though, I liked the film. The very presence of Ronnie Corbett in full militia regalia, in both the trailer and the film, lets you know what you’re in for. It’s not a straight-faced period piece of any kind. It comes from the Ealing brand, and while it might be tonally closer to Carry On Screaming than The Ladykillers, it still recalls the dry comedic tradition that Ealing Studios typified in its heyday.
This is not to say that the film’s above some quite spectacular slapstick. While the emptying of a chamber pot (as seen in the trailer) might not raise a laugh, the hilarious highlight of the film is a short scene featuring a cameo by Paul Whitehouse that had people roaring with laughter. More moments like this would have been appreciated, because Whitehouse shatters the more humdrum proceedings of the narrative.
The film constitutes a bit of a Spaced reunion with its inclusion of Tim, Daisy, Bilbo and Tyres in various roles, and the rest of the cast are all pretty good too. Andy Serkis works his magic once again, proving his immense versatility by playing this unscrupulous blackguard in between playing Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll and a chimpanzee in the upcoming Planet Of The Apes prequel.
There are an awful lot of unusual cameos that seem more geared to crowd pleasing than inspired casting. Hey look, there’s Tim Curry! And there’s Christopher Lee, doing precisely not much! At one point, Michael Winner appears just for the purpose of plunging off a cliff. While that might please those of us unfortunate enough to sit through Parting Shots, he comes out of nowhere and vanishes as suddenly as he appears.
While it’s very interesting to see an alternate approach to the murders that have previously been dramatised in 1972’s The Horrors of Burke And Hare, the mild humour is overwhelmed by the wry revisionism. The horror here comes from over-the-top sound effects alongside the defilement of corpses. An extremely loud bone-crunching Foley effect will raise a nervous laugh, but it rarely exceeds a chuckle.
Even so, the promise of the talented cast is largely fulfilled. The two leads are on top form, and equal to the anticipation that comes with a John Landis horror comedy. It’s Landis himself who falls short with Burke And Hare, however, delivering a film that feels like it needed just a tad more post-production. It’s a film that’s easy to like, but harder to love than I’d expected.