John Landis’s first directorial effort in over a decade, Burke and Hare is essentially a series of multiplex-ready clichés adorning a weakly scandalous premise. Deriving its historicity from the same 19th-century Scottish murders that inspired the no more poetic but far more uncanny 1945 horror film The Body Snatcher, Landis’s adaptation frames Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) as bumbling, down-on-their-luck businessmen who espy opportunity in the regulated use of fresh cadavers in medical lectures. The showboating surgical academic Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) tempts the duo to first scoop up from squalid flats the recently deceased and then pummel bodies into torpidity that he can use to best his rival lecturer, Dr. Alexander Monro (Tim Curry). The actual killings, which were equally cold-blooded but during which far fewer putatively comic, bone-crunching sound effects could likely be heard (their smothering technique was renowned) remain a curious benchmark of inhumanity’s economic utility. Screenwriters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft, assuming the extreme poverty of Edinburgh circa 1830 to be too light a fictive impetus, assign each member of the dyad a masculine-ly angst-ridden motive: Just untalented souls trying to “make it” in life, Hare seeks better living conditions for his conniving, bawdy wife (Jessica Hynes) while Burke becomes smitten with a hooker turned actress (Isla Fisher) and to win her favor applies his blood money toward her dream of realizing an all-female Macbeth on stage.
The clunking inanity of these narrative elements notwithstanding, the milieu provides opportunity for a wealth of gags, most of which Burke and Hare passes up for an aesthetic of not-quite-funny affability. (Aside from the awkward falling-down-stairs, Punch and Judy slapstick of the murders themselves and a chamber-pot shower the protagonists receive, the film’s smirking, innocuous simmer never boils over into actual jokes.) The misfortune in this loping cadence is that the movie’s stereotypes aren’t made buffoonish enough to be gawked at; we’re quickly offended by what could be taken as emotive seriousness from the prostitute/thespian, for example, whose ostensibly feminist goal is perverted by the character’s hammyness and loopy obsession with dramatic punctiliousness (cf. the faux-girl power of the Heath Ledger vehicle Casanova). And the sacrifice that facilitates the “dark,” “unhappy” ending, aside from reeking of municipal contrivance, feels like a half-hearted deviation from the otherwise aggressive fidelity to Hollywood plug-and-play-isms. Broadness this indolent hardly even stirs one to antipathy.