Legendary director John Landis, the man responsible for An American Werewolf In London, Coming to America, and Thriller, to name a few, recently held court with the Shock Waves podcast crew for a free-wheeling, two-hour-long discussion about his eclectic career and deep love of horror movies. Sitting in on the podcast was Blumhouse Producer and President of Production Couper Samuelson, who admitted his true goal was to break the ice with the 67-year-old director as a precursor to maybe talking him into making a movie together. In honor of that, I sought out the last movie Landis made, 2010’s black comedy Burke & Hare.
It’s very easy to imagine Landis chuckling in his characteristically upbeat manner and describing Burke & Hare as being about two morons who somehow killed some people even though the real criminals were the snooty doctors and an entirely corrupt society. He’d make it sound so much fun. But Burke & Hare originally flopped with both audiences and critics. Watching it now, I find it kind of endearing, in a throwback comedy kind of way.
The film opens with the tongue-in-cheek text “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” followed by “EXCEPT FOR THE PARTS THAT ARE NOT.” It’s a sly acknowledgment that, yes, if you look Burke & Hare up online you’ll find your fair share of historical discrepancies. These guys really existed, but this movie doesn’t want actual history to get in the way of a good story. At least we’ve been warned.
After that, we’re left watching an old woman in 1828 Edinburgh being hung in a city square for a series of trumped-up charges.
The crowd cheers her sudden end but then immediately moves on with their day, doing whatever peasants did back then, and we’re left with a pretty good idea what kind of comedy to expect. This is going to be black, sure, but it’s also going to be very, very broad, as you’d expect from the man behind Animal House and Three Amigos.
The hangman (Bill Bailey) gleefully turns to the camera to set the stage for us. He explains how 19th century Scotland was a real best of times, worst of times situation, serving as the world’s hub for cutting-edge medical research while also being something of a cesspool for poor people with limited opportunities. The two leading experts in the new science of human dissection, we’re told, are Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. Alexandro Munro (Tim Curry), the former being a rather regal fella in love with the sound of his own voice and the latter a bit of an oddball with a real thing for dissecting feet, for some reason. Their competition has naturally led to a bit of a turf war over the cadaver trade, and when Munro manages to snag exclusive rights to the corpses of the freshly executed Knox has to turn elsewhere.
That’s, finally, where Burke & Hare come in.
Played like a vaudeville comedy duo by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, the Irish immigrants come more from the “worst of times” part of Edinburgh. Having exhausted all their options as day-laborers and newly struck out as conmen, their only income is from a lodger renting a room in the home they share with Hare’s wife Lucky, played by a wonderfully scene-stealing Jessica Hynes (the first of the oddly many Spaced reunions throughout the movie). When that lodger passes away from natural causes, they happen upon the idea to sell the corpse to Dr. Knox.
They’re not even a mile into their journey of pushing the giant barrel down a city street before they decide to stop for a pint.
So, these guys are lovable idiots. The upper crust doctors are impossibly petty. Death is all too common and what to do with the dead an often darkly funny ordeal. Got it.
As Burke & Hare realize just how much money Dr. Knox will pay them they mount a new career as grave robbers, but when the authorities put a stop to that they elevate to becoming murderers, the choice being more Hare’s idea than Burke’s. In general, Hare is the sinister opportunist and Burke the unwitting accomplice.
They both turn out to be really, really bad at murder, though. They will eventually stand accused of some rather heinous crimes, but Burke & Hare gets a lot of mileage out of the surprise that these two managed to ever off anyone at all, a comedic choice obviously meant to take the edge off the morality of what they’re doing.
The script eventually weaves in a side story involving an all-female production of Macbeth (led by Isla Fisher) mostly to lend Burke a bit of Shakespearean pathos (he clearly thinks of himself as a tragic hero) while also hanging a lantern on how quickly Lucky turns into their Lady Macbeth. There’s also an attempt to connect this to the overall class commentary since it’s a group of women from a lower social class trying to move up in the world just as Burke & Hare are through far more lethal means.
Landis’ from-a-different-era sensibilities really show here, though. He has a bit too much fun staging bad Shakespeare and turns Burke’s character arc into something straight out of an old sex comedy. He’s bankrolling Fisher’s play and they’re going out on frequent dates together, but he can never get more than a kiss out of her. In the end, he just really wants to get laid.
It’s an odd merging of genres and tones. Landis took an R-rated plot about murder and corruption and turned it into something that plays more like a PG-13 slapstick about crass opportunism and two fellas just trying to get by. He goes so far as to dot the edges of the story with over-the-top caricatures, like an enthusiastic French inventor (Allan Corduner) and a Napoleon-sized, Clousea-esque local investigator (Ronnie Corbett). He’s not the first to take such a comedic approach to the Burke & Hare story, but I don’t know if anyone has gone quite as big and broad with it before. I wish someone had told him to dial it back a bit.
It only works as well as it does because he cast the right actors to pull it off. Serkis and Pegg are excellent together as an “evil Laurel & Hardy,” as Landis put its on the film’s DVD. Hynes proves again why she really should be cast in more things, stealing the movie right out from under her more famous co-stars. Fisher, as the naive member of the quartet, at least gets some laughs with her truly dreadful, tone deaf attempts at Macbeth. Wilkinson and Curry’s dueling amorality adds an extra edge.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Burke & Hare feels very much of a piece with John Landis’ body of work. In fact, it feels a tad stuck in it, less a modern movie, more a broad 80s comedy that just happened to be made in 2010 as an homage to old Ealing Studios classics. But at a remarkably swift 85 minutes long (minus the closing credits) it’s an easy watch and soft recommend for any Landis fans or just fans of old-fashioned black comedy.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- As of this writing, Burke & Hare is John Landis’ final film, and if that remains the case he will not be the first director to end his career with a movie named Burke & Hare. Beloved B-movie director Vernon Sewell capped off his nearly 40-year career with 1971’s horror effort Burke & Hare, starring Derren Nesbitt and Glynn Edwards as the dastardly duo.
- Netflix’s new series The Frankenstein Chronicles merges the historical passing of The Anatomy Act with a fictionalized telling of a copycat killer mimicking the plot of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Interestingly, even though it is never actually referenced in Burke & Hare, the public response to their crimes directly influenced the passing of The Anatomy Act, which barred grave robbing and formalized the distribution of cadavers to medical institutions for research. That connection and my recent binge of Frankenstein Chronicles is another reason why I decided to watch this movie.
- Because Burke & Hare was the first new Ealing Studios movie in years, Landis managed to stack the bit parts with notable actors and industry personalities like Christopher Lee, Jenny Agutter, Stephen Merchant, and even Ray Harryhausen, all of whom probably took next to nothing just to work for a day in the historic studio.
Burke & Hare is currently available to stream on Showtime and is not due to leave the service until 9/30/18.