Note: Although Burke And Hare has already opened in Great Britain and is beginning to roll out in other countries, it has not yet been picked up by an American distributor yet. The film screened at a Lincoln Center Film Society event in New York City on March 3 with director John Landis in attendance for a question and answer session afterwards.
When John Landis made his last feature film, the virtually direct to video Susan’s Plan, he was in something of a slump. Many fans were scratching their heads, puzzled as to how the director of Animal House, An American Werewolf In London and The Blues Brothers could have made such disappointments as The Stupids and Blues Brothers 2000. But in the time between then and now, he has made two documentaries and a few television episodes, leaving fans wondering if he would return to making features at any time, and if he did, would we see some of that old Landis magic.
Burke And Hare is that return and there is definitely a hint of the old Landis magic to be found. If he was looking for a film with which to stage a comeback, Landis couldn’t have found much better material than what is here. A dark comedy with a tinge of pathos at the end, Burke And Hare is a tonal echo of American Werewolf. But what does one expect from a tale of two fairly inept murderers?
William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) are two Irishmen who moved to Edinburgh, Scotland to seek their fortune in the early 1800s. However, their fortune seems to be elsewhere as they soon find themselves broke and without prospects. However, when they find out that the city’s many medical colleges have an ongoing need for fresh cadavers for educational dissection, they think they’ve found a way to make a fortune. But after their first “sale,” an old tenant who died of natural causes in the boarding house that Hare’s wife runs, they realize that they’ll have to be a bit more assertive in their procurement of bodies for their client, Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson).
Though based on two historical figures, there’s not much depth to the roles of Burke and Hare, but Pegg and Serkis infuse them with enough life to keep things moving. Jessica Hynes also does some good comedic work with the small bits she is given as Hare’s wife. Isla Fischer does some nice work as the (fictional) love interest of Burke and it is nice to see her in a comedic role where her character isn’t portrayed as a fool. In his role as a rival doctor, Tim Curry not only shows that he has perfected the art of the contemptuous sneer, but also gives great subtle deadpan reactions to every scene he is in. And as always with Landis, you may also want to keep an eye out for cameo appearances from some his director friends.
Landis would be the first to admit that Burke And Hare is not a perfect film. In fact, at the Lincoln Center Film Society screening, he flat out said so during the question and answer session held afterward. He stated that he had some interference during the editing of the film and one of the producers had an objection to the historical accuracy of one character’s fate versus giving everyone a happy ending. Fortunately, Landis didn’t budge on this count.
A couple of scenes feel disjointed and have no real momentum to them. In one sequence, Burke and Hare are rolling a barrel with a body in it through the cobblestone streets of Edinburg. They lose control and have to chase the barrel down a series of hills and alleyways. Individually, there are shots that contain some slapstick humor but the entire bit doesn’t feel as if it flows organically.
And while Burke And Hare isn’t great, vintage Landis, it is still good Landis. It’s a good first step to rehabilitating his cinematic reputation and fairly enjoyable way of passing an hour and a half.