The key to making a farcical comedy is to push every single gag to its limit. Like a shotgun of free-flowing ideas, the farce should be a barrage of jokes at the expense of the characters and their surroundings. Every man, woman and child involved should be a depthless vessel to absorb punishment. Their back stories should be nonsensical and ludicrous, their passions should be mocked and ridiculed and their involvement in the film should be exploitively contingent on whether they’re needed to produce laughs. No larger meaning should ever be attempted, and no genuine sympathy should ever be sought from the audience. If you attempt the farce, you die by the farce. At least that’s the way it should be, but apparently, no one ever told John Landis.
The famed director’s newest movie seems to be under the impression that farce works best as a now and again thing. Burke And Hare proves it does not. The result is an absolute, positive mess that completely wastes one of the most fascinating and fucked-up real life stories the world has ever seen. During the late 1820s, Edinburgh, Scotland was world renowned for its medical institutions. Lecture halls were dispersed throughout the city, and young men came from all over the world to learn. Unfortunately, those willing students were missing one thing: bodies. A new law limiting executions had robbed those famed universities of their corpses, and as always happens during times of need, the criminal underworld answered the bell. For awhile, grave robbing became the hot profession for shiftless, amoral heathens, but after nighly patrols put the kibosh on that, two enterprising men named Burke and Hare found the solution. To ensure consistency and quality, the pair started suffocating people themselves.
If all of this sounds really funny, I assure you it should be, but in choosing to show itself as a farce instead of a black comedy, the movie completely robs itself of opportunity and meaning. Being forcibly donated to science for profit may not rank very high on a list of modern day fears, but back in the day, this murder for medical gain actually happened and scared the shit out of people. Edinburgh practically rioted over the Burke and Hare fiasco, but none of those emotions are tangible in the movie it inspired. As characters faint for comedic effect, get shot in the ass and bumble their way through love stories, all of that seriousness melts away. Landis doesn’t ask the audience to laugh at Burke and Hare’s bizarre and creepy business, he asks them to laugh at characters having bad breath and going cross-eyed during sex. At least if Burke And Hare was consistent with the farce, it could be chalked up to bad decision making, but the damn thing actually has the balls to ask viewers to sympathize now and again. For some reason, it proves to difficult to care about two morons accidentally killing a fat and jolly caricature that literally sings as he walks down the street. Weird.
The action opens with a narrator outlining the same conditions I did above. Dr. Alexander Monro (Tim Curry), an old fashioned MD who still carries a saw in his medical kit, has convinced the state to award him all available corpses for his research, leaving Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) without bodies for his progressive lectures. Meanwhile, hapless friends William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) are reeling after their most recent all-natural moss cure was exposed as a hoax. Serkis colors his William with a little more intelligence than Pegg’s, but that’s like saying he’s the Butt-head of the pair. Desperate and out of money, the two return home to find Hare’s wife (Jessica Hynes) distraught over the death of one of her renters. He passed before paying his tab, and she orders the men to dispose of the body. They stop off for a drink first, yes, with the dead body in tow, and overhear a local criminal complaining about how the militia’s nightly patrols have run him out of the grave robbing business.
With an available body literally waiting outside and a course of action that practically wrote itself, Burke and Hare head to Dr. Knox’s home to do business. Of course, the barrel teeters on the edge of a big hill en route prompting a Benny Hill chase, but worry not, the corpse is recovered. Dr. Knox pays them five pounds and offers the same for any subsequent deceased people the two might come across. They’re willing, it’s just finding recently dead people that’s the problem. Within days, Burke and Hare are manufacturing accidents, cutting down trees to derail stage coaches and pushing drunk people down the stairs. They’re hopelessly incompetent at non-murder, at least until a girl offers one of them an incentive to get a lot better.
Her name is Helen McDougal (Isla Fisher), and she’s a dancer and wannabe actress looking to put on Scotland’s first all-female rendition of Macbeth. Burke falls in love instantly, and impulsively agrees to finance the play. Of course, this monetary commitment requires a lot of quick money, and by this point, the William’s know where to get it. Enlisting Hare’s wife in the plot, the trio start straight murdering people with little thought to covering their tracks.
Somehow, in spite of all its tone problems and inconsistencies, Burke And Hare is still watchable. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis are enjoyable enough as lead actors, and the sets are elaborate and authentic looking. With Tim Curry and Tom Wilkinson on board, there are more than a few checks in the pro column, but every time any sort of momentum is accrued, someone walks in on a man checking another man’s ass wound or a woman drunk and passed out with her face in a piece of cake. It’s really demoralizing. It’s like Burke And Hare makes a consistent effort to remind viewers every few minutes that it’s overtly stupid, pathetic and obvious.
John Landis is better than this. I wish he’d bothered showing it.