BURKE AND HARE (2010)
Review by Paul McMahon– The Distracted Critic
BURKE AND HARE (2010) opens with the line “This is a true story, except for the parts that are not.” It’s a taste of John Landis humor, and an excellent launching pad for this dark comedy, the first horror-themed feature film Landis (best known for AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, 1981) has directed since 1992’s INNOCENT BLOOD.
The story of BURKE AND HARE is one every self-respecting horror fan knows—a tale of grave robbers who murdered undesirables to sell their bodies to science, rather than do any actual grave digging. Burke is played by Simon Pegg (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, 2004 and PAUL, 2011) and Hare is Andy Serkis, best known as the motion-capture model for Gollum in THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001-2003) and for Kong in KING KONG (2005).
The story takes place in 1828, a time before Gray’s Anatomy (the textbook, not the TV show), a time when the internal organs of the body weren’t understood. In Edinburgh, Scotland, two schools of medicine compete over freshly executed bodies to study. At the start of the tale, Doctor Monro (Tim Curry—Pennywise the Clown in IT, 1990, and of course Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the 1975 midnight classic, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW), head of Scotland’s Royal College of Surgeons, has used his political influence to pass a new city by-law stating that all executed bodies are to be turned over to his school, free of charge. This leaves Doctor Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson—THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, 2005), head of Barclay School of Anatomy, to rely on grave robbers to supply his cadavers. Trouble is, Captain Tam McLintock (Ronnie Corbett), head of the Royal Guard, has declared war on grave robbery and has men patrolling every graveyard every night.
Enter Burke and Hare, two con men desperately in need of money. After spending their last coin on beer, they return to Hare’s place, where his wife Lucky, played by Jessica Hynes (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, 2004) informs them that Old Donald, their tenant, hasn’t paid his rent because he’s dead. She instructs them to get rid of the body before he starts to smell as bad as them. They fold him in half and stuff him into a barrel, intending to hide him at a construction site.
Being the lazy bastards they are, they stop for a pint on the way, and it is here they learn about Doctor Knox’s problem. A quick change of plans later, they’ve got five pounds in hand and a promise of five more for every “fresh” corpse they bring in.
With graveyards too well guarded to obtain bodies in the usual way, Burke and Hare try hanging around in unsavory places, hoping to luck into freshly deceased bodies to swipe. When they come up empty, they hatch a plan to help some of the old and unsavory citizens of the city off this mortal coil.
Success, of course, breeds only the need for more money.
Burke falls for Ginny Hawkins (Isla Fisher, WEDDING CRASHERS, 2005), a dreamer who wants to put on an all-female performance of Macbeth, and is hunting for a financial backer who shares her vision. Burke takes the job, and soon one thing after another goes wrong, leaving him desperate for more and more money. Hare’s wife Lucky deduces what her husband is up to and demands a cut to keep quiet. “Call it a tax between a man and wife.” As more and more people disappear, Captain Tam McLintoch of the Royal Guard strives to solve the mysteries and bring the perpetrators to the gallows.
Simon Pegg is making a career out of playing the loveable bum who remains affable while everything around him falls apart. It’s a role he’s good at, and he’s chosen movies that keep him in that realm of performance. As Burke, he excels at playing a character who realizes that his situation has him on a dangerous slope, yet is unwilling to stop until he gets what he wants—Ginny’s adoration, preferably in the form of sex.
Andy Serkis is so well-known for playing motion-capture creatures that his performance surprised me. He positively shines as Hare, a lazy bum and all-around lout who likes life a whole lot better when he’s making money, and is astonished to discover that he really does love his wife.
Isla Fisher is wonderful as Ginny Hawkins, a peasant girl with delusions of class, who is determined to better herself in a time when women are seen as servants, slaves or whores. The entire supporting cast is excellent, each of them playing their part straight, leaving the laughs to come from the situations and the storyline, rather than from actors winking at the camera.
The script by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft is spot-on, as is Landis’s direction. The movie was so well-constructed, that it was over before the first jolt of wander-bug hit me. It’s a shame the film hasn’t become wildly popular, because there’s nothing lacking here. Landis has knocked another one out of the park, and his passion is obvious.
If I absolutely had to find a fault with the movie it would be that Tim Curry doesn’t have a lot to do. Still, his part is memorable and necessary, and missing him isn’t a good enough reason to knock points off. I give BURKE AND HARE five stars, with no time outs at all.
© Copyright 2012 by Paul McMahon