The Tomb of Terror – Burke & Hare (2010) – SIFF Film Review
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At one time, John Landis was on one of the best rolls of any comedy director. Following the cult success of Kentucky Fried Movie in 1977, he made the comedy classics National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and my vote for best horror film of all time, An American Werewolf in London. Then Twilight Zone: The Movie happened. We’ve all heard the story. Vic Morrow and two illegally-hired child actors were killed when a special effect went bad and caused a helicopter to fall from the sky. Even though Landis was acquitted of all charges related to the incident, it has haunted him his entire career since. He still managed a couple of hits after this incident, including the iconic music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and the Eddie Murphy vehicle Coming to America. Unfortunately, his 90s output mainly consisted of failure (Beverly Hills Cop III) after failure (The Stupids) after failure (Blues Brothers 2000). Burke and Hare, which is playing as part of the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival, is his first narrative feature in twelve years and is also his best in nearly twenty.
The time is 1828. The place is Edinburgh, Scotland. Changes are happening in medicine and the understanding of the human body that’ll change the world forever. Leading the way in this research are two feuding doctors, Doctor Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Doctor Monro (Tim Curry, The Rocky Horror Picture Show). For many months these two doctors have been working on understanding the anatomy of the human body for the first time in history. After a criminal has been executed, whoever can pay off the executioner first will be able to have their way with the dead body. This rivalry gets taken up a notch when Dr. Munro uses his political influence to make it so that only he has access to the fresh bodies. Dr. Knox is suddenly faced with the possibility of not being able to continue his research, since there don’t seem to be enough dead bodies to go around.
Enter William Burke (Simon Pegg, Shaun of the Dead) and William Hare (Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings trilogy). These two roommates and best friends are down on their luck and just about out of cash. When Hare’s wife Lucky (Jessica Hynes, Pegg’s co-star on the TV show Spaced) informs the boys that one of their boarders has died, it seems as if it’s the end of the line. Without a boarder to pay rent, they are broke and will be thrown out of their home. But then ingenuity strikes, and the boys stuff the boarder’s body into a barrel and deliver it to Doctor Knox. He pays them handsomely for their specimen and says that he’ll take any others they can bring for the same price.
Burke and Hare happen upon some more expired peoples, but the well of dead bodies lying around soon dries up. In order to stay afloat, the boys turn to killing people in order to provide Doctor Knox with bodies. Burke is understandably squeamish about the proposition of murdering for a living. But then he meets an aspiring actress (Isla Fisher, Wedding Crashers) looking for funding for an all-female version of Macbeth. Burke realizes that if he is to keep this woman in his life, he’ll have to continue his new vocation and fund her play. Hare and Lucky are much more comfortable with being murderers and don’t want anything to get in the way of their new business venture.
If the above sounds like the ingredients for a dramatic tragedy, then you’re right. The film is based off of a horrible true story from the 19th century where normal men turned into murderers just to make a buck. However, the film itself has a different agenda: it wants to make you laugh. Landis and his writers have turned the story of Burke and Hare into a dark comedy. They show you their hand right in the opening titles, which read “This is a true story, except for the parts that are not.” This is not an exposé on real life murderers; it is a morbid comedy made by one of the masters of that genre. Landis showed with An American Werewolf in London that he is able to balance the horrific and the comedic better than nearly any other director. If Burke & Hare doesn’t live up to those lofty standards, it’s not for lack of trying.