(2010) Horror Comedy (IFC) Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, Christopher Lee, Ronnie Corbett, Hugh Bonneville, Jenny Agutter, Bill Bailey, Jessica Hynes, Stuart McQuarrie, Michael Smiley, David Hayman. Directed by John Landis
New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger characterized this movie, loosely based on real life murders committed in Edinburgh in the 19th century, as an American director using English actors to portray Irish immigrants committing murders in Scotland (I’m paraphrasing here) which, as Genzlinger opines, leads to a bit of schizophrenia of tone.
William Burke (Pegg) and his associate William Hare (Serkis) are having a spectacular run of bad luck. Times are hard in 19th century Edinburgh; while the best medical universities in the world are here, most of the city is stuck in squalor as the citizens of Edinburgh try to meet ends meet, most with the same lack of success that Burke and Hare are experiencing.
At the same time there is a rivalry going on in the medical schools. Doctors Robert Knox (Wilkinson) and Alexander Monro (Curry) have been going at it tooth and nail as they use cadavers to teach students the wonders of the human body. However, cadavers aren’t easy to come by and Knox is paying top dollar for fresh corpses and thus Burke and Hare discover a wonderful business opportunity for themselves.
At first they pretty much stick to grave robbing but the problem is that people aren’t dying fast enough to keep Knox properly supplied, so Burke and Hare, being entrepreneurial sorts, decide to help them out a bit. Soon the money is rolling in and Hare’s wife Lucky (Hynes), a sensible sort, helps her husband and his partner out with the business. Burke, in the meantime, has become smitten by actress – or prostitute, which Hare points out isn’t much of a distinction at the time – Ginny Hawkins (Fisher) who yearns to put on an all woman version of Macbeth and Burke is determined to finance the show in order to win the heart of his new beloved.
Still, murdering people for their cadavers is sort of frowned upon and the law is soon on their tails. You can imagine what happened next – or you can look it up in Wikipedia. The movie is kind of close to what actually occurred in the end.
This is the product of Ealing Studios which produced some of the most well-known comedies in the history of British films between 1947 and 1957 (including Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob). This isn’t, strictly speaking, a comedy although it is funny in places (although the movie relies on slapstick a good deal for its humor which is fairly lowbrow for Ealing). It isn’t, strictly speaking, a horror film either although there are some grisly images. Hammer Films has nothing to worry about in other words.
Landis who in his prime directed some classic films like An American Werewolf in London, The Blues Brothers and National Lampoon’s Animal House hasn’t directed a feature since 1998. This isn’t by any means going to be remembered as one of his better efforts but it actually isn’t one of his worst either.
Casting Pegg and Serkis (although at one time Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell were rumored to have been cast in their roles) is a good reason why. The two are perfect for the parts. Their byplay is natural and unforced. It’s what you might expect from a couple of men who have been friends and partners for years; they’re almost like an old married couple in places.
It helps that each of them has a romantic foil that keeps up with them. Fisher, a beautiful woman who has some pretty impressive acting chops, takes a quirky role and makes it believable. Too often these kinds of parts are written to be eccentric for their own sake and I think that to a certain extent that’s the case here (just ask yourself – does having Burke fall for an actress with Ginny’s aspirations add anything to the story that wouldn’t have been there if she was “normal”?) and only Fisher’s performance keeps it from being irritating. Hynes, whose work I hadn’t been familiar with, also does some impressive work here.
There are some mystifying changes to the historical facts which I understand often has to be done for dramatic purposes. However, Burke and Hare were notorious for smothering their victims, which was their preferred modus operandi. I don’t understand why that was glossed over other than to create slapstick opportunities having to do with the murders themselves. Ah well.
I do like the tone of the movie which isn’t overly serious despite its somewhat grisly subject matter. This isn’t a movie people are going to be rushing right out to rent but by the same token it isn’t one that should be ignored either. I would have liked a little more consistency and a few more laughs. However, this is worth a look if you’re out to check something you haven’t seen before.
WHY RENT THIS: Pegg and Serkis are fun to watch. Fisher is gorgeous and there’s a certain sly wink about the film.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks consistency. Plays fast and loose with the real story of the murders, some of which seems unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of disturbing images as you might imagine. There’s also a little bit of sex and a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actors David Schofield, John Woodvine and Agutter all appeared in An American Werewolf in London which was directed by Landis back in 1981.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.4M on an unreported production budget; sounds like it made a tidy profit.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Sell the Dead
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Out of Africa