It seems like nowadays, especially in our gimme-gimme-gimme, now-now-now society of instant, hyperlinked gratification, that when a movie’s release is delayed or postponed, that it takes on a mystical dimension of importance and fascination. This leads to endless speculation about why the film hasn’t made its way to (domestic) theaters yet; what’s the reason behind the hold-up? In the in-between time, a new reputation for the film has already been forged, one based on tenuous material and (possibly) overseas reviews. In the case of John Landis’ “Burke & Hare,” which was released almost a year ago in England, the word was that the film was something of a return to form.
This was a period horror romp from Landis, who directed the immortal “An American Werewolf in London” and whose last proper horror film was 1992’s underrated vampire gangster movie “Innocent Blood.” In recent years the filmmaker has refashioned himself not as a director of studio comedies like “Coming to America” but as a true “Master of Horror” (directing two episodes for the anthology series of the same name and one for its tamer network counterpart “Fear Itself”). Add to it the prestige of being produced and filmed at the legendary Ealing Studios, its ace cast (led by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis) and its atmospheric debt to the painterly Hammer Horror films of yore, and “Burke & Hare” seemed like a period horror comedy worth speculating about (and getting excited for), should it ever be released stateside.
And now that it finally is coming out (thanks to the saintly folks at IFC), the film feels like even more of a letdown – a tame squandering of a whole lot of potential and a limp return to the multiplexes for a once-quite-gifted filmmaker who could eloquently combine genres to fit his needs. Coming just a few weeks after fellow Master-of-Horror John Carpenter’s disastrous “The Ward,” and you start to wonder if retirement might be a better option for these guys.
Based on an actual series of murders that happened in Edinburgh (where we learn in the film was a hot spot for medical schooling at the time, thanks to a helpful hangman/narrator) in 1827 and ’28, the film stars Simon Pegg as William Burke and Andy Serkis as William Hare, two Irish hustlers who are always looking for a quick buck (or shilling… or whatever). Hare’s wife (played by Pegg’s “Spaced” costar Jessica Hynes) owns an Inn and after returning from an unsuccessful attempt to sell cheese mould, discover that one of the lodgers has died. They take the body to a local doctor and professor named Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson), who has just lost his monopoly of the bodies of hung criminals to his rival Dr. Munro (an oily Tim Curry). In the rapidly advancing fields of science and medicine, cadavers are invaluable tools for anatomical dissection and classroom discussion… and the professionals were running low.
So, for a couple of shifty, morally rudderless individuals like Burke and Hare, this seems like a lucrative opportunity, especially since Hare has a nagging wife eager to ascend in the society hierarchy and Burke has fallen in love with a former prostitute who now fancies herself an actress. The actress, who calls herself Helen McDougal (Isla Fisher), wants to put on an all-female performance of “Macbeth”… and wants Burke to fund it, even though she’s yet to reciprocate his romantic advancements. First they take to stealing bodies from the cemetery – an untoward and cumbersome process that can only yield so many results before they start delivering corpses that are better suited for sarcophagi than school rooms. Once that dries up, they take their trade to the next level, becoming active serial killers, which, at the very least, provides the freshest possible product, bumping off several of their fellow townspeople with ghoulish glee.
If this seems like a fine tonal balancing act to achieve and maintain, well, that’s because it is, and one that, given his track record, Landis should have been more than able to gamely tackle. But the movie feels soft and safe, lacking in the truly outrageous extremes that would have shifted the movie away from the awkward period buddy comedy that it is and towards something far grander, weirder, and quite frankly, funnier. Pegg and Serkis (thankfully free of any kind of motion capture appliance) are deft comic performers and inherently likable anchors for a movie whose subject matter veers from off-color to genuinely unsettling, with Fisher and Hynes providing superb backup, but they’re given precious little to do and are surrounded by scenarios far grimmer and drabber than you would have expected.
Landis, who knew that an American college student turning into a werewolf and murdering innocent victims wasn’t enough (no, you needed those victims, laced with gooey viscera, to come back from the dead and taunt the college student), is squarely restrained. He’s evoked the Hammer Horror movies countless times when talking about “Burke & Hare,” which is a fair enough comparison considering how darkly humorous those movies were. But they were just as funny as they were violent and surreal (a good comparison to this film would be Hammer’s “Horror of Frankenstein,” in which the rakish young doctor murders his father so that he can have money to fund his experiments), two things that “Burke & Hare” very much lacks, which is just baffling given the subject matter and the amount of squishy-gross things that go on in anatomy classrooms. (The autopsy in “Contagion” easily outdoes everything in “Burke & Hare.”)
At this point it’s something of an accomplishment that “Burke & Hare” is coming out at all, considering Landis’ last movie, 1998’s “Susan’s Plan” (starring Nastassja Kinski and Dan Aykroyd), didn’t receive theatrical distribution at all. And there are moments when, in spite of itself, “Burke & Hare” is charming (like when Hammer icon Christopher Lee shows up as an elderly victim-in-wait). There are moments when you might genuinely get taken in by the handsome, old timey photography by British cinematographer John Mathieson or the endless mugging of the lead actors. But chances are you won’t be scared or even laugh that much. “Burke & Hare” could have been a smashing return for a director who expertly knows how to mix belly laughs with body counts, but without much of either, it just hangs there, limp and lifeless, waiting for somebody to take it away or sell it to the nearest medical examiner. [C-]