Burke and Hare

Posted by Tom Paskins on November 06, 2010 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , ,

Burke and Hare, 2010. directed by John Landis; screenplay by Piers Ashworth, and

Nick Moorcroft.

Reviewed by Tom Paskins

Apart from An American Werewolf in London (1981) and the two episodes of the television series Masters of Horror, entitled Deer Woman (2005) and Family (2006) the vast majority of director John Landis’s work has been outside of the Gothic canon. Here however, he makes a return to the genre with his take on the true story of the 19th century body snatchers, who through providing corpses for the Edinburgh Medical School, manage to run a thriving business.

The first introduction to William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) calls to mind anxieties attendant upon early Gothic writing. They are Irish Catholic immigrants in a country which was by this time, largely defined by a Presbyterian identity. They way that they are so quickly revealed as fraudsters after attempting to fob off Cheese Mould on the public by claiming it to be authentic Donegal Moss, only to have a chamber pot emptied on their heads five minutes later, serves to establish them as incompetent rather than threatening. This is where the main flaw of the film lies; it is far too reliant upon juvenile slapstick, as opposed to the deliciously ghoulish jet black comedy of An American Werewolf.

The moment Landis attempts to create a sense of menace-the backdrop of Edinburgh with its gas lit wynds, dark shadowy alleyways and churchyards is beautifully rendered as a Gothic space-he immediately decides to snatch it away straight after. For example you get a scene where the duo are frantically pursuing a runaway herring barrel, containing a cadaver down one of those said Wynds, only to see it smash right through a shop window. You also get William Burke getting shot in the backside by the Edinburgh Militia during one of the grave robbing scenes in Greyfriars cemetery. There is not one moment which comes close to emulating the terror generated in the classic tube station sequence from the earlier film.

There is a blink and you miss it cameo from Christopher Lee, who plays a former soldier, who is now on his death bed. Given the fact that he is such an icon of British Horror cinema it feels such a shame that he wasn’t given more to do. A more generous amount of screen time is given to Ronnie Corbett, who stars as Captain Mclintock of the Edinburgh Militia. It is however, very difficult to get past the fact that he is clearly struggling to maintain a convincing Scottish accent and that he looks strangely out of place without his former comedy partner.

Having said all this, the film is not without its merits. The reference to Greyfriars bobby serves as a nice parodic touch; as does the duo’s attempt to gain access to an exclusive club by claiming to be William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Also amusing is the group of former prostitutes, led by Ginny (Isla Fisher) who decide to put on the first all female production of Macbeth. Ultimately though, this merely serves as a lead to Landis misguidedly attempting to play out the final quarter of the film in the manner of a Shakespearean tragedy. Given his light hearted approach to the material, this simply does not work.

Overall Burke and Hare is a reasonably enjoyable way of spending a rainy afternoon, albeit an instantly forgettable one.

Watch the trailer here:

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