Judge Daryl Loomis has a hard time keeping his hands out of other people's graves.
Our review of Burke & Hare (1972) (Blu-ray), published July 6th, 2012, is also available.
They're making a killing.
Beginning with the Robert Louis Stevenson story, "The Body Snatcher," the West Port Murders, a series of grave robberies and killings committed by William Burke and William Hare, have been immortalized many times in print and on film. It's a great story, filled with ghoulish intrigue that seems pretty hard to muck up. Yet, in his first feature film in over a decade, director John Landis (Animal House) manages to do just that.
Facts of the Case
Burke (Simon Pegg, Shaun of the Dead) and Hare (Andy Serkis, 24 Hour Party People) are Irish immigrants trying and failing to make their way in Edinburgh, Scotland. As the epicenter of the United Kingdom's medical community, though, the duo comes upon a unique opportunity. The doctors need bodies for dissection and the duo is just desperate enough to provide them, and they'll go to any means to acquire them. Their murderous exploits make them a lot of money and Burke even finds love in a beautiful young actress (Isla Fisher, Confessions of a Shopaholic), but the local militia is closing in on their investigation into all these missing persons and they soon realize that their good times cannot last.
I had a lot of hope for Burke and Hare, but it faces one big problem: the jokes aren't funny. It's clear where the gags are supposed to be, but every single one of them falls completely flat. Nothing is outright awful or eye-rolling like a late era Mel Brooks movie, but none of them works, either. It's fairly surprising to find it so dull because, while John Landis hasn't seen much success in quite a long time, the story holds a lot of promise for black comedy and most of the rest of the production is quite solid. It can be the greatest looking film in the world, though, but if the jokes don't work, it fails.
The plot takes the historical story and adds some silliness, along with a horribly trite ending to turn a gruesome tale of murder and grave robbery into a messy gallows comedy. The performances are pretty good, starting with the duo of Pegg and Serkis. They're a likable pair who does well as both dirt poor grave robbers and as successful murderers. Pegg's love interest is the always charming Isla Fisher, who does a great job given her terrible material. Her subplot of putting on the first ever all-female production of Macbeth makes basically no sense next to the rest of the film, and only exists to give Fisher the chance to show off some Shakespearian skills. There are plenty of guest stars in small roles to keep things interesting, as well, including Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty), Christopher Lee (To the Devil a Daughter), and even the great special effects artist Ray Harryhausen. It's too bad that all of this is wasted by the bad writing, because there really was a lot of potential in this film.
Still, Burke and Hare does look good. The locations are very nicely shot by cinematographer John Mathieson (Gladiator). The city has an authentically grimy feel and the interiors even more so. The period costumes are fantastic across the board and there appears to have been a lot of thought put into the design. With that and the generally solid performance, it's surprising the film doesn't fare better, but it's pathetically dull and boring.
The DVD for Burke and Hare from MPI and IFC Films is very solid and, if you wind up liking the film, well worth picking up. The 2.40:1 standard definition anamorphic transfer is excellent, with great colors and very solid black levels. The film has a very dingy quality that comes through really nicely on the screen, but it also features really good detail. The Dolby 5.1 surround isn't as heavily utilized as it could have been, but the rear channels get a little bit of a workout and the dialog and music have very strong representation in front. The slate of extras is also quite good, starting with ten deleted and extended scenes. None of them is terribly important, but they add a little flavor to a film that needs it. A nearly thirty minute making-of featurette give us a bunch of behind the scenes footage that isn't exactly enlightening, but it is interesting. The best extra is the series of interviews with nearly everyone with significant involvement in the production, from the stars and director to some of the important bit players, which gives the sense that there actually was hope for this film, no matter what was actually realized. A set of outtakes and a trailer are basically worthless to me, but it's overall a really solid disc.
There's no question that I want to like a comedy about murder and grave robbing. There are plenty of quality stars and a director who has done a lot of fun work in the past. But in the end, Burke and Hare just doesn't work. For a better version of the story, watch The Flesh and the Fiends. If you disagree with me, though, and think the film is hilarious, the DVD is something you'll enjoy.
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