Back in 2009, I got a chance to chat with John Landis for our podcast and it ended up being one of the best interviews I’ve ever done. Landis is extremely straight-forward and cantankerous in the best way possible; he’s the only person I’ve ever had refuse to answer a question not because his hands were tied, but because he just didn’t feel like it. It was around the time he was in the midst of pre-production on Burke And Hare, his first feature-length narrative film since 1998’s Susan’s Plan. On paper, it sounded like a geek’s wet dream: Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis starring as grave robbers in a horror comedy directed by Landis, who’s directed some of the greatest comedies of all time as well as dabbling in the genre with An American Werewolf In London, Thriller, and Innocent Blood. It’s really shocking that, even with all this going for it, Burke And Hare is as unfunny as the real-life case it’s based upon.
After discovering they can turn a profit for selling corpses to progressive anatomist Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson) when one of their elderly tenants dies, entrepreneurs William Burke (Pegg) and William Hare (Serkis) realize their primitive 19th century pharmaceuticals hocking was the wrong racket for them. While slightly hesitant to begin down a path of moral impropriety, the two entrepreneurs quickly change their tune when they realize they can make enough money to fund Hare and his wife’s (Spaced alumni Jessica Hynes) and Burke’s would-be girlfriend’s (Isla Fisher) all-woman stage production of Macbeth. As the bodies and money begin to pile up, so do Burke and Hare’s problems as a group of opportunists and the police begin to catch onto their scheme, putting their vision of a cushy future in jeopardy.
Having a charismatic villain that audiences latch onto isn’t anything revolutionary, but Burke and Hare completely misses the mark by taking two devious murderers and turning them into romantic-comedy leading men. Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft’s screenplay tries to create sympathetic, identifiable characters out of Burke and Hare, and although I’m sure everyone can relate to having financial issues, especially in this economy, I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone approving of premeditated murder as means for monetary investment. The film, however, finds it hilarious, and somehow tries to make light of knocking off old women for money, and then decides it wants to be straight-faced once the men are prosecuted.
The terribly dark and unfunny sense of humor doesn’t end there, as the bulk of the comedy revolves around Burke and Hare making awkward faces at each in other in disgust of hauling around dead bodies, or being in the same vicinity as a cauldron of feces. When the actors and script fail to deliver any chuckles, the editing takes a swipe at it but stumbles even harder as Hare plows his wife in bed, only to have her stare off and moan apathetically before it quickly cuts to the next scene. Burke and Hare wears its cultural appreciation on its sleeve with fantastic production design and an endless parade of character actors from across the pond, but fails to deliver any actual dry, British humor.
After two great Masters of Horror episodes, I thought Landis was back on track, returning to a subgenre that he practically turned mainstream all by himself. But Burke and Hare is poorly constructed and painfully unfunny, underutilizing Pegg and depending on funny faces to carry the entire film. The whole is not as great as the sum of its parts, putting it in the same boat as Beverly Hills Cop III.