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— The true and grisly story of serial murderers William Burke and William Hare has been realized many times in fiction, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1884 short story “The Body Snatcher” - which in 1945 became a Val Lewton produced, Robert Wise-directed movie starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi - to the 1960 British film The Flesh and the Fiends (with Donald Pleasance and Peter Cushing) and 1985’s The Doctor and the Devils (based on the stage play by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas). There was also a 1971 horror movie, Burke& Hare, which some people seem to remember (although I don’t) and even a young adult novel, Nicola Morgan’s Fleshmarket.

In any case, if you aren’t familiar with the bare bones of the story then you should understand that Burke and Hare were Irish immigrants eking out a subsistence existence in 1820s Edinburgh when they discovered a market for cadavers among the city’s esteemed men of science. After lucking into their first, naturally occurring corpse, they proceeded to murder at least 16 people, delivering their bodies to the respected surgeon and lecturer Dr. Robert Knox.

In this film, the first directed by John Landis in more than a decade, the story is re-cast as black comedy, with a tone not too different from Landis’ 1981 cult movie An American Werewolf in London. Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) are pretty lovable dolts with few prospects when the timely demise of a fellow lodger provides them with a plan. Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson) requires fresh corpses for his anatomy projects and he’ll pay five pounds per body, while not asking too many questions. (He’s not the only buyer, Tim Curry has a small, delicious role as his rival Dr. Alex Munro.)

Burke has a conscience, but he’s lovesick over Ginny (Isla Fisher), a former hooker turned dancing girl who dreams of mounting an all-female production of Macbeth. Hare is cheerfully amoral, and his wife, Lucky (Jenny Hynes), finds the extra money he’s bringing in an aphrodisiac.

While there’s much that is smart about the movie - it adopts the dark visual aesthetic of ’60s Hammer horror films and the sophisticated yet madcap comic tone of the classic postwar Ealing Studio comedies (and it’s no doubt a point of pride among the filmmakers that the film is being released under the Ealing Studio marque) - the whole seems somewhat less than the sum of its parts. While there are some nice bits of physical humor, neither Pegg nor Serkis provides us with much more than pleasant roguishness. And Landis’ direction feels timid, more a feeling toward an idea than the expression of one. The movie is simply too mild - it’s neither very scary nor very funny. It’s not great.

Still, it’s not terrible either, and if you go in with your expectations suitably lowered - this is not Shaun of the Dead Meets Animal House - it’s enjoyable enough. It reminds me more than a little of the Coen brothers’ attempted remake of the Ealing Studios/Rank Organisation The Ladykillers, another well-planned and executed film that nevertheless sounded better than it turned out to be.

MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 11/11/2011

Print Headline: Burke and Hare

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