CAPSULE: The story of the Burke and Hare body snatchings and murders returns to the screen for another go, with John Landis directing from the Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft script. The IMDB gets it right to say this is first a comedy and second a thriller. There is certainly more giggle here than shiver, thanks to a director used to mixing the two, John Landis. But a really good cast and good art design carry this film like a Hammer horror film but with more levity. It might not be released to theaters, but it is recommended as a nice film to sit down with on a cold winter evening. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
BURKE AND HARE opens with the statement that this, the film, is a true story ... except for the parts that are not. As far as it goes that is director John Landis telling the truth. William Burke and William Hare were real people who lived in Edinburgh, Scotland. They had a small income from the biological supply business. It seems that anatomist and lecturer Dr. Robert Knox taught at the Edinburgh Medical College where he was hassled by the shortage in real cadavers that he could use in his teaching. Knox was not above paying for cadavers supplied by locals, no questions asked. Thieves would rob the graves of the recently departed and sell the corpses for a tidy sum that would probably end up squandered at the pub. The thugs Burke and Hare saw others around them who made their living robbing graves and selling bodies. And then the demand outstripped the supply. There were just not enough people dying to meet the medical school's needs. It was then that Burke and Hare came up with a special process for making new medical cadavers from materials they found around the streets of the city. This business worked for almost a year, November 1827 to Halloween 1828, when they were finally found out. BURKE AND HARE, directed by John Landis, tells this much and the rest of the story, and on a visit to Edinburgh any good tour guide can tell you more of the story. The tale is grisly enough that the people of Edinburgh have nursed it like a sore tooth.
The story has been told several times in films. The 1956 TV production THE ANATOMIST had Alastair Sim as Knox and Michael Ripper as Hare. The 1960 film THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS told the story with Peter Cushing as Dr. Knox and Donald Plesance as William Hare. THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS (1985) changes the names but tells the tale with a screenplay by Dylan Thomas. The 1972 film BURKE & HARE (a.k.a. THE HORRORS OF BURKE AND HARE) repeated the story. Several other films either use the characters of Burke and Hare or were strongly influenced by the case. Robert Wise's film THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) (produced by Val Lewton) refers strongly to the case. The Hammer film DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE worked the Burke and Hare murders into the plot. Now John Landis has turned the story into a comic farce with a major British cast. Tom Wilkinson plays Dr. Knox. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis are Burke and Hare respectively. Tim Curry is a rival anatomist to Knox, and comedian Ronnie Corbett a captain of the constabulary. In small roles or cameos are such notables as Christopher Lee, Ray Harryhausen, Jenny Agutter (of LOGAN"S RUN), John Woodvine (of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and the long stage adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby), Costa- Gavras (director of Z), and William Burke himself (a first!).
Landis probably realized that the story was somewhat played out as a pure horror or true crime story so he returns to the kind of film he built his early career on but has done less of lately. He turns the story into a comedy. Does that work for him? Well, the film will not win any major awards, though John Mathieson's photography and Simon Elliot's production design are nicely atmospheric.
Not a first-ranked film, but for fans of horror or even just comedy, BURKE AND HARE is will worth seeing. As a horror fan (and someone who has seen *all* the other Burke and Hare films listed above) I rate the new BURKE AND HARE a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
BURKE AND HARE (2011) is playing on the Independent Film Channel. Just a side note here: IFC seems to be able to find better and more unusual horror than any other source I know of. It was through IFC that I saw PONTYPOOL and if you like intelligent horror, you should too.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1320239/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/burke_and_hare/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper