wed 29/05/2024

Burke and Hare | reviews, news & interviews

Burke and Hare

Burke and Hare

Last of the summer grave-robbers: John Landis's return to horror-comedy

Andy Serkis 'gives his most superficial performance'; Simon Pegg 'is muted as the murderous romantic hero'

John Landis will always be loved for writing and directing An American Werewolf in London (1981), the definitive horror-comedy. That - and The Blues Brothers, and Trading Places - was reason enough for Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis to agree to star as 19th-century grave-robbers Burke and Hare in Landis’s first feature for 12 years.

Pegg’s Spaced co-star Jessica Hynes (playing Hare’s slatternly wife), Sir Christopher Lee, Stephen Merchant and Ronnie Corbett are also among those queuing to work with the legendarily affable and energetic director. Burke and Hare won’t, sadly, recruit future generations.

It’s set in 1828 Edinburgh, where the death of a tenant at Hare’s lodging house leads to him disposing of the corpse with fellow poor Irish immigrant Burke to anatomist Dr Knox (Tom Wilkinson). Knox’s fee encourages the pair to be increasingly proactive in supplying corpses. Burke baulks, but being able to finance young actress Ginny (Isla Fisher) in her dream of an all-female production of Macbeth drives the smitten serial killer on. With Knox feverishly completing a photographed map of the human body in time for King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh to grant a Royal Seal, the quantity of cadavers comes to the attention of zealous militia chief McLintoch (an unlikely but strangely convincing Corbett).

The elements of horror, comedy and romance here promise a return to American Werewolf terrain. But the difficulty of that film’s genre-splicing trick was shown by Landis’s one attempt to repeat it, in the patchy New York vampire film Innocent Blood (1992). Landis instead says his model was the elegant dark humour of Ealing’s Kind Hearts and Coronets; the revived studio financed Burke and Hare, after all.

Comedy, and the script, are his first problems. Laughs mostly come as they do in the dullest British sitcoms, from polite recognition that the joke’s ancient subject and punchline are arriving on schedule. The film is studded with grisly and unpleasant murders of the old and infirm, while Burke and Hare continue as its roguish romantic heroes, a contrast that appealed to Landis, but which he can’t exploit (the real Burke and Hare pictured below).

BurkeandhareThe director spent a lot of time in London in the 1970s and, like such diverse fans as Johnny Depp, Mike Myers and Mel Brooks, is a keen student of British comedy greats otherwise unknown in the US. This Anglophile immersion fed American Werewolf’s mordant outsiders’ view of Yorkshire pubs, the NHS, late-night tubes, porn cinemas and afternoon TV. Here, Landis instead just goes with the flow, dutifully making the sort of anonymous period comedy that, a couple of graphic moments aside, could drift by any Sunday evening on BBC One. It’s Last of the Summer Grave-robbers.

Landis is a fan of Pegg, Hynes, Corbett and co, and they are fans of him, which explains a film where mutual backslapping has replaced conviction and ambition. Serkis gives his most superficial, uncertain performance, Pegg is muted as the murderous romantic hero, and Fisher is too anaemic to convince as an actress who was once a prostitute ( “physical theatre”, she primly alludes, in a rare good line). The embarrassment of cameos Landis fills all his films with reaches new highs and lows, as Christopher Lee is sat on, Michael Winner driven off a cliff and Paul Whitehouse shoved down stairs (I blinked and missed Ray Harryhausen, radical Greek director Costa-Gavras and sainted American Werewolf sex bomb Jenny Agutter). This allows the sort of virtuoso little reaction shots British character actors distinguish even the lamest Carry Ons with. A beautiful eyebrow-raise and lip-purse from Corbett is almost worth the film. But the possibilities if Landis had raised his sights are there in Knox’s surreal, wispy proto-photos of dissected people. Looking at them, you start to wonder what one of his horror contemporaries - a Cronenberg or a Raimi - might have done. Instead, the slapdash comfiness of Landis’s return is shown when a hearse by appointment to Queen Victoria drives by, dated five years before her accession.

Watch the trailer to Burke and Hare

Landis is a keen student of British comedy greats otherwise unknown in the US

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