A film icon tackles a British historical legend with some spectacular actors and makes a movie that would’ve really thrilled audiences two or three decades ago. Williams Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) are two entrepreneurs trying to make a living in the big city of Edinburgh in the 1820s. They’ve had one moneymaking scheme after another fall flat and have been reduced to living off the rent Hare’s wife, Lucky (Jessica Hynes), collects from a few tenants. Doctor Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) is trying to create the definitive work on human anatomy, a goal which requires numerous dissections and numerous fresh corpses to dissect. Knox’s work is being hampered by his nemesis, Monro (Tim Curry), who’s pulled some strings and made it mandatory for all bodies from executions to be delivered to his own school of surgery.
When one of Lucky’s tenants dies unexpectedly, though, it’s a chance for everyone to get what they all want. Knox gets a new subject for his studies while Burke and Hare get rid of the body and pocket a tidy profit. Which is when Hare realizes there’s a ton of money to be made in the death business, provided you can get people to die just when you need a corpse...
At which point, as you may have seen coming, Burke & Hare descends into black comedy along the lines of Sweeney Todd or Little Shop of Horrors. With the small proviso that, unlike those films, this one’s based on true events. Mostly.
I really wanted to like this movie. How could I not? It’s the director of An American Werewolf in London making a horror/dark comedy movie with the very talented stars of Shawn of the Dead and Lord of the Rings about Britain’s most notorious mass-murderers after Jack the Ripper. I was surprised I hadn’t even heard of this movie until it got offered for review.
And while I don’t hate it, there’s something off here, and maybe that’s why I never heard about it (and I’m betting most of you reading this hadn’t either). To be honest, there’s a bunch of little somethings. The pacing feels off and the tone doesn’t sit quite right. The story meanders, which suits the characters but doesn’t help the plot as much. The one thing these characters are known for -- their killing spree -- is almost brushed aside to give more time to their ongoing troubles with the local crime boss, Burke’s love affair with aspiring actress Ginny (Isla Fisher), and Hare and Lucky’s long-term business plans. In fact, the murders are downplayed so much, you get the sense that Burke and Hare aren’t really doing anything wrong, even though they murder more than a dozen people over the course of the film (including Christopher Lee). The film tries to portray this in a comic light at times, and Hare often points out that they’re just “making a living,” but it never quite comes together.
Burke & Hare feels like a strange little time capsule. Ignoring some of the more recent stars in it, it’s like watching a movie from the late '80s, some lost classic a friend recommended, or maybe something you loved at the time and still enjoy and appreciate in a nostalgic way, but you recognize it wouldn’t be able to hold its own today. Even though many of the individual elements are well done, the film as a whole just feels old. I almost expected Svengoolie to pop up between scenes to tell me what other things the actors had done and where they are today. There’s a fair amount of bonus features on this disc, which makes it kind of sad how poorly they’re all set up. You get the sense lots of studio people planned on Burke & Hare being a much bigger film, and when it wasn’t they just stopped working and tossed everything on the disc. “Behind the Scenes” is just a long run of unedited, unexplained footage of the cast and crew. The “Deleted Scenes” are somewhat interesting, but they’re so tight it’s tough trying to figure out where some of them fit in, and it would be nice to hear what led to them being cut. The simple “Outtakes” is the only thing that feels like a finished feature, and I’d bet money it’s because it was cut together for the wrap party.
Probably the biggest disappointment is the huge array of interviews with almost every cast member, Landis, Moorcroft, and even producer Barnaby Thompson. This should be a treasure trove of material, but it’s a poorly edited mess. We get a full-length interview with each person where the interviewer has been awkwardly edited out, so many of them seem rambling and repetitive. There’s also no “play all” feature for the interviews, so you’ve got to work your way through them one at a time.
Burke & Hare isn’t a bad movie or a bad disc. It just feels out of date, and maybe not worth the full new-release price.