The Spineless Grave Robbing Black Comedy We Deserve in Burke and Hare
Returning to the horror-comedy genre that launched and later disgraced his career, John Landis tries to breathe new life into the much-filmed true story of a pair of 19th-century killers who kept an Edinburgh physician in fresh cadavers. The screenplay by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft mixes historical accuracy with wild fabrication as it follows the titular duo (Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, respectively) from striking a deal with the ambitious doctor (Tom Wilkinson) and living large on the proceeds, to getting nabbed by a bumbling copper (Ronnie Corbett, who has the funniest bits) and facing the consequences. Hare's wife (Jessica Hynes) and the object of Burke's desire (Isla Fisher) participate in the scheme, and Christopher Lee has a maddeningly brief cameo. Violent as it is, the setup is also ripe with darkly comic possibilities—Donald Pleasence was gleefully grotty as the foppish Burke in 1960's The Flesh and the Fiends, for example, while RKO's indirect 1945 take on the tale, The Body Snatcher, found cringe-worthy humor in the relationship between its corpse supplier (Boris Karloff, naturally) and his employer. But by swinging between broad laughs and cheap pathos—Pegg's specialties as an actor, apparently—while avoiding the more fertile ground between, Landis renders his Burke and Hare sociopolitically toothless and bizarrely insensitive. Maybe every generation just gets the Burke and Hare movie it deserves.
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