Monday, December 17, 2012

Movie Monday: Burke & Hare

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 2010 horror/comedy Burke & Hare!

I remember getting wind of this movie a year or two ago, and I was really excited over it: it starred Simon Pegg, who I'm a fan of, it was horror comedy, generally a genre I enjoy (and Pegg himself had great experience with, via Shaun of the Dead), and it was directed--after a decade-long hiatus--by John Landis!

I can say without any real hyperbole that I grew up on John Landis movies. As a kid, I watched Animal House, The Blues Brothers, American Werewolf in London, Trading Places, and Spies Like Us so many times that I can still parrot large chunks of dialogue from each ("Are you the police? No, ma'm, we're musicians"). Landis' career took a slide by the end of the 1980s, and for long periods of time he simply didn't make any movies at all. He had done some documentaries and some super low-budget things, but this was a period piece with big stars! A return to form!

I was not heartened by the fact that the film never seemed to play in theaters, instead going right to DVD. Not a good sign, but I'm familiar with the nightmarish vagaries of film distribution not to immediately dismiss a movie just for that. But then I promptly forgot about the movie, until I saw it on the shelf of my local library (just like what happened with Get Low). So I grabbed it!

Based on a true story, Burke & Hare is about two lowlife shysters (Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, respectively) in Edinburgh. Via narration by the local hangman (Bill Bailey, who appeared in Spaced and Hot Fuzz with Pegg), we learn that all corpses that meet the hangman's noose are shipped off to Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) who uses them for dissection. His rival Dr. Monro (Tom Curry), who wants Knox's job, since he is reduced to working on just the amputated parts of the living.

Thanks to a forged letter, bodies are then ordered to be redirected to Monro, leaving Knox high and dry. When the elderly border of the Inn owned by Hare's wife (Jessica Hynes, also from Spaced) dies, Burke and Hare decide to bring the body to Knox, who pays them for it. They realize there's money in this!
At the local tavern, Burke meets a young woman named Ginny (Isla Fisher) and is immediately smitten (understandable). She and her friends are all prostitutes who want to get out of that life, and Ginny's idea is to stage an all-female version of Macbeth. You see, Ginny considers herself an actress:

For Hare's part, he wants to use the money to open a funeral parlor (the idea of his wife's). He mentions this new racket to a real crook named McTavish, who kidnaps Hare and threatens him, saying he and Burke must pay half of their pay to him, for "protection."

This leads Burke and Hare to get a little more creative about where to get two bodies a week, going from grave robbing to out-and-out murder. Knox knows when a body has come to a natural end or not, but decides to look the other way as long as the bodies keep coming. Eventually, all these people dying gets noticed by the local law enforcement, who discover its the work of Burke and Hare, and arrest them. Helen and Hare's wife are also arrested.

The two are made an offer, that if one of them confesses, the others will go free:
Burke decides to confess, on one condition: that he and Ginny get to spend the night in the same cell. The police agree to this, and the two finally get to make love. The next day, Burke is hung, offering only this as his final words: "I did it for love."

The film ends where it began, with the hangman telling us what happened to everyone else after Burke was hung:
...the final scene is of a real-life medical museum, where Burke's skeleton still hangs. The End.

Burke & Hare sure does look great: the period detail is just right, and the amount of talent on screen is impressive: in addition to Pegg, Serkis, Wilkinson, Hynes, Fisher, and Bailey, there are roles, big and small, for Christopher Lee, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine (both from American Werewolf in London), Ronny Corbett, Hugh Bonnveville (Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey), Stephen Merchant, even the legendary Ray Harryhausen!

The only problem is, for a horror comedy, Burke & Hare is neither scary or funny. There's lots of gross stuff, dealing with dead bodies and all, but there's never one moment that is remotely tense, and the humor is so broad and silly that I realized I didn't laugh a single time during the entire 95 or so minutes. As the film rolled on, I found myself shocked at how dull it was, despite being performed by people I am a huge fan of.

I can only guess the fault lies with the screenplay, and the direction. Landis mixed horror and laughs successfully in AWIL, so why Burke & Hare falls so flat is a bit of a mystery. When I think about it, it might be because the two main characters are too clownish to be taken seriously, yet what they do is so bad you can't really absolve them of guilt and truly root for them. Serkis' scenes with Hynes are so over-the-top and silly they reminded me of sketches from the old Carol Burnett show...then they'd be followed by some grisly bit about a corpse. It just doesn't work.

Which is too damn bad, because I was and still am a huge fan of Landis' work, and would love to see him return to mainstream movies. But looking at the general reaction to Burke & Hare (36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), it seems as though this movie is not going to be the one that does the job.

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