John Landis has been absent from feature filmmaking for over ten years. He’s kept pretty busy with various television programs over this time, but Blues Brothers 2000 is lamentably the last film he’s made. I have to admit that I picked Burke & Hare up because of Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Only 20 minutes into the film did I take a look for the director and was pleasantly shocked to discover it was Mr. Landis, the man behind films such as Twilight Zone, Trading Places and American Werewolf in London.
A film is certainly more than the work of the director, especially with talents such as Pegg, Serkis, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry and Christopher Lee in the cast. Yet, the blend of comedy and horror is a return to form for Landis. Even the comedy is layered; clever wordplay, dark slapstick, and historical satire are all in the mix. There are no scares to speak of, but there is plenty of gore and internal organs to be seen. The humor is obviously morbid, given the grave-robbing scenario that propels the story, and people who are unable to laugh at murder will find no joy in this skulk through the back alleys of London.
Burke & Hare is no low-budget romp, either. Shot on practical locations with an eye toward period details, the setting is rendered well and offers much to see. The cinematography, as shot by John Mathieson, offers plenty of gritty Victorian sights as well as some of the elegance of the age. In many films like this, the imagery tends to take a second seat to the physical antics of the performers, but in this case (like Landis’ other genre films) the photography sells the humor as well as the talent. This is also real filmmaking, not a static shot left wide for the comedians to inhabit. Landis closes when he needs to see the expression, pulls back when we need to see the movement.
In a film that is at times very broad, the criteria for performance are different than for a dramatic one. For the most part, the actors aren’t reaching for nuance but precision. In some ways, the filmmakers and the actors act as a cartoonist might, trying to find the perfect mix of exaggeration and recognition for any given mood or moment. Serkis and Pegg are both up to this challenge; Serkis has done most of his work behind a digital mask so it is refreshing to see him inhabit his own skin, and Pegg gets far enough away from the fanboy goofball that has made him famous. The supporting players are given enough room to inhabit their roles with personality, but there is only as much depth as is needed. Their persuasions are simple but effective.
I should say it is pretty clear, after surveying other critics, this film is something you have to “get”. Many say this doesn’t live up the standard of American Werewolf in London, to which I can only ask, “Have you seen American Werewolf in London lately?” That film has a little more character development, but the broad strokes, the occasional dark humor, and the production value of that film are at least equal to Burke & Hare. Films like 48 Hours and Animal House just don’t apply here, and to expect that is to miss the subtleties of genre. This film is better suited to a double feature with Young Frankenstein, Feast, House, or Return of the Living Dead.
Burke & Hare is not a film for everyone, which shouldn’t be a surprise for a film whose protagonists are cold-blooded killers for cash. This is a dark comedy that concerns a time in London when life was cheap and desperate. We should find this world distant and easy to laugh at, closer to the shocks and giddy giggles in Sweeney Todd than The Hangover. However, given the mixed reaction and uneasy responses to this film, perhaps many still feel closer to this time than we might admit. After all, some illegal body parts still fetch a pretty penny, and the goals are often much less noble than the advancement of science.