'Burke & Hare': John Landis' Comeback
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
After recasting the Rabelaisian comedy to great effect and even greater profit with 1978's "Animal House," director John Landis had a pretty impressive run with not just comedy, but with the grafting of comedy and horror: His very funny and still pretty nerve-wracking and icky 1981 film, "An American Werewolf in London," remains a crackingly entertaining genre mashup. But while his work arguably paved the way for the edgily frank sex comedies and cheeky horror pastiches we seem to be seeing more and more of and enjoying less and less, Landis' films also showed conspicuous respect and affection for the old-school, as indicated by his casting of classic silver-screen presences Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche in "Trading Places." His fiction filmmaking career having turned more than a trifle vestigial in recent years, he plied his nonfiction trade in 2007 making an unashamedly awe-filled documentary about Don Rickles. Now the onetime upstart is at an age advanced enough to be old-school himself.
Still, Landis' new "Burke & Hare," his first fiction feature since 1998's "Susan's Plan" (a project so ill-handled it didn't even achieve a U.S. theatrical release), pays homage to the verities in unusual ways. Historically minded readers will glean from the title that the film is yet another treatment of the notorious case of the Scottish medical-cadaver-supplying murderers of Scotland in the 1820s. These guys inspired Stevenson's tale "The Body Snatchers" and the subsequent Val Lewton-produced '40s horror film of the same name; subsequent movies about the duo include such genre noteworthies as "The Flesh and the Fiends" and "The Doctor and the Devils." Landis' retelling, from a pretty clever script by Nick Moorcroft and Piers Ashworth, makes the title duo a couple of lovable ne'er-do-wells who happen upon homicide for profit more or less by accident.
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Reliably likable Simon Pegg plays the unprepossessing and naturally sweet William Burke, whose taste of success in selling off a dead rooming house resident to pioneering researcher Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson) puts him and his money in the sights of an ambitious woman of the evening (Isla Fisher) keen on entering the proper lively arts by staging an all-female production of "Macbeth." Andy Serkis, his bugged-out eyes practically drooling with avarice, is the somewhat more pragmatic William Hare, whose discovery of an easy way to make a dirty living perks up his sex life with his onetime lush of a wife (Jessica Hynes) and arouses more entrepreneurial ambitions in them both. The duo's murderous activities (one of their victims is Brit horror legend Christopher Lee) also excite the interest of a local protection racket, some clumsy militia types (headed by Brit comedy legend Ronnie Corbett) and more. The various plot threads also manage, far-fetchedly enough, to encompass the birth of photography.
All this and more is stirred into a heady brew by Landis, who makes of the proceedings something like a Hope-Crosby road movie crossed with a classic but not overly refined Ealing comedy (think "The Ladykillers" or "Whisky Galore!" rather than "The Man in the White Suit;" and in point of fact a revived Ealing is the studio behind this picture), crossed with something like, well, "American Werewolf" (there's even a cameo from that film's co-star Jenny Agutter, still a lovely and welcome sight). The pace is never less than spanking, but the film grammar is practically classical: No strobe-cutting or shaky camerawork here.
And the film is practically bursting at the seams with remarkable across-the-pond talent and typically quirky cameos. And the gore is suitably grisly. If it's altogether more cozy than "American Werewolf," its ultimately upbeat charm is nevertheless pretty pleasingly fractured. The only really peculiar thing about "Burke & Hare" is that while 30 years ago it might have fit nicely in a quirky corner of the cultural mainstream, now its U.S. release is an art house-only affair. Catch it if you can.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.