NPR logo 'Burke and Hare': Grave Matters, With A Comic Slant

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'Burke and Hare': Grave Matters, With A Comic Slant

All for love: William Burke (Simon Pegg) and Ginny Hawkins (Isla Fisher) live the high life — on proceeds from his low life — in Burke and Hare. Laurie Sparham/IFC Films hide caption

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Laurie Sparham/IFC Films

Burke and Hare

  • Director: John Landis
  • Genre: Black comedy
  • Running Time: 91 minutes

Not rated

With: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry

It's a match made in cult-cinema heaven — on paper. The co-writer and star of the greatest horror-comedy of the past decade (Shaun of the Dead's Simon Pegg) teams up with the writer-director of a film occupying a similar place in the pop-culture canon of a generation earlier (An American Werewolf in London's John Landis), and together they set out to create a comedic take on the most notorious mass-murder tag-team in Scotland's history.

These two know how tricky it is to effectively blend horror and comedy, taking the former seriously enough to be scary and then using a little well-placed humor to let fright bleed into its cathartic cousin, laughter. But while timing and tone are a big part of that equation, it all starts with the script, and neither of these two had their hands on the screenplay for Burke and Hare.

The story of Burke (Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) is nearly as ingrained in British crime history as Jack the Ripper, and has similarly inspired a number of literary and cinematic adaptations. Responsible for over a dozen murders in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the early 19th century, the pair of Irish immigrants made their living as laborers and odd-jobbers until they discovered a lucrative business selling corpses to an anatomy lecturer. Starting their trade with a lodger who died of natural causes in the boarding house run by Hare's wife, they quickly found that waiting for people to die took too long, and took it upon themselves to speed up the process.

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Released under the banner of Ealing Studios, the film attempts to blend the madcap farce for which that studio was famous during the mid-20th century with the mannered Victorian horror of Hammer Films. (Hammer veteran Christopher Lee even turns up for a brief cameo.) But while the picture looks fantastic, with a richly detailed period production design and a darkly colorful palette, it never manages to be very funny or very scary. Or even mildly creepy.

It's hugely disappointing, given the talent involved. Landis, as one might expect of a beloved director getting behind the camera again for the first time in over a decade, attracts a fantastic group of actors: Nostalgic favorites like Lee, FX legend Ray Harryhausen and American Werewolf star Jenny Agutter join up with great British character actors like Tom Wilkinson and Hugh Bonneville. Pegg brings in a number of alums from his cult television series, Spaced, including popular British comic Bill Bailey in one of the film's most enjoyable supporting turns as hangman and narrator. Serkis, meanwhile, shows that the digital masks he wore in Lord of the Rings and Rise of the Planet of the Apes weren't doing all the work.

But screenwriters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft, in trying to inject humor into the macabre scenario, have toned down the title characters' more sinister instincts. Here, they're just a couple of comically lovable scam artists until they realize the golden opportunity in front of them, at which point they become comically lovable murderers.

Burke in particular gets a romantic-comedy pass: He's fallen for a local dancing girl with theatrical aspirations (Isla Fisher), and only wants the money so that he can win her heart by funding her all-female production of Macbeth. In excusing his behavior as being motivated by love — and giving him an honorable way out in the end — the writers de-fang the film entirely. To call it a black comedy is probably misleading: It's grey at best, and apart from a few scattered chuckles, it dies as quickly and gracelessly as Burke and Hare's victims.