Burke and Hare (United Kingdom, 2010)

February 29, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Burke and Hare Poster

The infamous tale of two 19th century Scottish murderers, William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis), might make for a dark, compelling drama. Or, with a little more focus on the gore, it could be a period piece horror movie. But a comedy? Accepting the challenge to make that version of the story was director John Landis, the renowned ‘80s filmmaker who emerged from semi-retirement in 2010 specifically to make this film. But the disappointingly uneven result is more emblematic of Landis later in his career than during his most fertile period. With its gallows humor (both figurative and literal), Burke and Hare can occasionally amuse with an offbeat flair but some elements, such as one featuring Burke’s Shakespeare-loving girlfriend, Ginny (Isla Fisher), would have been better left on the cutting room floor. There’s probably enough material in the movie for a deliciously macabre short. Unfortunately, the padding dilutes the aspects that work without adding anything worthwhile.

The movie begins with this caption: “This is a true story except for the parts that are not.” With that statement, the filmmakers make a telling admission. Historical accuracy isn’t all that important; screenwriters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft have taken an old adage – “never let the truth get in the way of a good story” – to heart. The framework is inspired by a spree of sixteen killings committed in Edinburgh, Scotland during 1828. And, although the skeleton shown at the end is real, much of the flesh grafted onto the bones of this narrative is heavily fictionalized.

A voiceover narration provides background information. In the early 1800s, Edinburgh was a leading center of anatomical research, with the study dominated by two rival doctors: Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) and Alexander Monro (Tim Curry). Monro, the Chair of Anatomy at the prestigious University of Edinburgh, was able to influence lawmakers to assure that all legally available cadavers were provided to his school, thereby depriving Knox of specimens. Desperate to have bodies for lectures and experimentation, Knox enters into a business arrangement with a couple of local ne’er-do-wells, Burke and Hare, whereby they will provide him with corpses upon request (for a hefty fee). After the first transaction – an old man who dies while renting a room from Hare and his wife, Lucky (Jessica Hynes) – the pair tries their hands at grave-robbing. When this proves unsuccessful, they opt to find individuals who might be in need of a little help on the pathway to the Almighty.

At the time when Burke and Hare went before the cameras, Simon Pegg was at his most popular, having starred in a series of profitable lampoons (in particular, his collaborations with Edgar Wright) and moved on to portray Scotty in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot. Andy Serkis, although better known for his motion capture work, was beginning to use his craggy features to good effect. The chemistry between Pegg and Serkis, a lowbrow friendly rivalry, is one of the best things Burke and Hare has to offer. The high-profile supporting cast includes Isla Fisher (in the thankless role as Burke’s love interest), Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, David Hayman, and Ronnie Corbett. Christopher Lee has a cameo as the first victim.

It’s unclear whether Landis viewed Burke and Hare as a means to revive his career or whether this was a one-off. Thirty years earlier, he had been one of the hottest directors in Hollywood with a string of hits to his name – Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places. Then came the tragedy of The Twilight Zone, where three actors (including veteran Vic Morrow) were killed in a helicopter accident in a segment being directed by Landis. Although acquitted of wrongdoing, Landis’ career trajectory was altered. Although he was responsible for several financially successful movies post-Twilight Zone (Coming to America being the most notable), he was never the same. He stepped away from directing movies in the late 1990s and, since 1998, the only theatrical feature he has helmed is Burke and Hare.

At the time of its release, Burke and Hare wasn’t seen as having strong commercial prospects. When the larger distributors passed on it, art-film clearinghouse IFC Films obtained the U.S. rights and released it direct-to-video. The hope, which was never realized, was that it might achieve a kind-of “cult” status. Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t sufficiently strong in any area to warrant the necessary attention. Fans of Pegg’s low-budget comedies may find the material to be sufficiently engaging to warrant a look but there’s little in the movie to attract a wider audience or convince contemporary viewers that Burke and Hare is a forgotten gem.

Burke and Hare (United Kingdom, 2010)

Director: John Landis
Cast: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Jessica Hynes, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, David Hayman, Ronnie Corbett
Home Release Date: 2024-02-29
Screenplay: Piers Ashworth, Nick Moorcroft
Cinematography: John Mathieson
Music: Joby Talbot
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Home Release Date: 2024-02-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Sexual Content)
Genre: Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1