Film Review: Burke & Hare

John Landis returns with a macabre spoof of Enlightenment Scotland, starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as entrepreneurial serial killers furthering the cause of science…and the arts.

The title sounds like the name of a vaudeville act, oddly appropriate for a broad comedy about two wastrels who, quite literally, stumble upon the lucrative trade of anatomy murder, or the art of procuring cadavers for medical dissection. Burke & Hare is a ghoulish farce perfectly suited to the sensibilities of director John Landis, auteur of the horror-comedy-musical, the man who wrote and directed An American Werewolf in London and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And although the movie is marketed as an Ealing Studio product in the tradition of The Ladykillers, in part because it was produced by the studio’s current chief, Barnaby Thompson, Burke & Hare is better compared to Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, say, or Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors and The Raven. Not bad company, in any case.

The actual William Burke and William Hare were Irish laborers eking out a living in Edinburgh in 1828 when they were tasked by Hare’s wife to rid her boardinghouse of a dead, and penurious, lodger. Rather than bury the body, they lugged it to the surgical theatre of Robert Knox, a prominent anatomist who paid well for fresh corpses to use in his lectures and research. Burke and Hare proved themselves worthy of the city’s reputation as a center of the new economic system of capitalism, foreswearing the grave-robbing route in favor of an entrepreneurial approach to medical supply. Over the course of a year, the partners killed 17 people, mostly by smothering them, and sold the cadavers. They were eventually caught and imprisoned, but Hare escaped hanging by testifying against Burke. Ironically, Burke’s body was turned over to another local anatomist, Alexander Monro. Burke’s skeleton remains on display at the Edinburgh Medical College.

Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis are well-cast as Burke and Hare, respectively, affecting Irish accents amid the sundry (and merrily exaggerated) Scottish dialects. Their comedic styles, heavy on mugging but leavened with impish innocence, keep the grisly proceedings whimsical. (It’s a pleasure to watch Serkis, just off his latest motion-capture triumph as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, acting without sensors attached to every muscle; he’s quite expressive even without digital enhancement, and you can see why he has become the go-to guy in computer animation). Knox (a dandyish Tom Wilkinson) and Monro (a weasely Tim Curry) are caricatured as conniving rivals seeking fame, fortune and royal favor, Monro exhibiting an absurdly ghoulish form of foot fetishism.

The narrative is fleshed out, so to speak, with amusing subplots involving Ginny (a charming Isla Fisher) as an actress specializing in “physical theatre” who dreams of mounting an all-female version of Macbeth; crime boss Danny McTavish (David Hayman), who wants a cut of the cadaver action; and the too-punctilious Captain McLintoch (a foppish Ronnie Corbett), whose investigations prove inconvenient to economic growth and scientific progress.
As he has done in past films (National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, to list his greatest hits), Landis amuses himself by casting pals in bit parts. Look for Christopher Lee and Paul Whitehouse as two of Edinburgh’s “unfortunates.” Directors Costa-Gavras and Michael Winner and special-effects icon Ray Harryhausen pop up here and there, and it would be remiss not to applaud Bill Bailey (as the hangman), Allan Corduner (as the daguerreotyper) and Jessica Hynes (as Hare’s wife, Lucky).

The story of Burke and Hare, not nearly as famous as their London counterpart, Jack the Ripper, nevertheless served as inspiration for a previous film, Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher (Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff), plus another that lends itself to trivial pursuit, Freddie Francis’ The Doctor and the Devils, based on a screenplay by Dylan Thomas, with Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Julian Sands, Stephen Rea, Patrick Stewart and…Twiggy.