John Landis’ first feature film for over ten years, Burke and Hare is perfect for those who want a touch of the macabre this Halloween without the frights. It is an interesting tale, but as a black comedy it is not as funny as it should be.
Burke and Hare are two Irishmen struggling to make a living in nineteenth-century Edinburgh. When they need to get rid of the dead body of a lodger, the pair stumbles into a lucrative business providing cadavers for one of Edinburgh’s most prestigious medical schools…
Based on the true story, albeit with a healthy supply of embellishment, Burke and Hare offers a humorous and sympathetic portrayal of the grave robbers. Rather than depict the pair as cold-blooded murders, screenwriters Nick Moorcroft and Piers Answorth instead paint them as opportunists, capitalising on a macabre demand. It is difficult to see how the film would work otherwise, given the tone.
Burke and Hare exudes an air of camp reminiscent of the later Hammer horror films. This is assisted greatly by the supporting a cast, which includes Christopher Lee. Tim Curry is wonderfully camp as Dr Monroe, one of the movie’s villains. Elsewhere, Ronnie Corbett, Tom Wilkinson and Hugh Bonneville play as if they are very much in on the joke. The result is a film that does not take itself too seriously; an attitude that works very well.
Given that Burke and Hare‘s narrative centres on corpses, the presence of gore is unsurprising. However, there is not an excess, and any such depictions are not overly realistic. The film has a limited palette of dark and drab colours, so blood does stand out. It is so bright, nevertheless, that it appears fake rather than shocking. This appears to be the aim of the filmmakers, given that Burke and Hare is a black comedy.
Simon Pegg as Burke and Andy Serkis as Hare are great as the bumbling duo. It is just a shame that they were not given better lines by the screenwriters. Isla Fisher is bubbly as Burke’s love interest Ginny, although her accent is patchy. Jessica Hynes is solid as the sometimes alcoholic Lucky, delivering a number of laughs with her physical comedy.
Not the first film based on the story of the grave-robbing duo, Burke and Hare takes a light-hearted approach to quite a sombre topic. It is just a shame that laughs were not more frequent.