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It’s Edinburgh in the 1820s and rival medical professors Monroe (Tim Curry) and Knox (Tom Wilkinson) are desperate for fresh cadavers for their demonstrations. Enter down-on-their-luck Irishmen Burke (Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis), who spot the demand and provide the bodies. They soon realise that it’s easier simply to kill than to dig up corpses, but how will Burke hide his profession from the lovely Ginny (Isla Fisher)?
Burke and Hare is John Landis first feature film since 1998. While his episodes of the TV series Masters of Horror were among the show’s best and showed that he still was still capable of producing gory and funny work, this film has a slapstick, Mel Brooks-esque sensibility that sits awkwardly with the corpses and murder. It’s also difficult to like the main characters, despite the casting of Pegg and Serkis. Burke does at least have some qualms about pushing men down flights of stairs, but Hare is quite happy to suffocate an old man.
This awkwardness of tone and the likeability of the leads wouldn’t matter so much if the script were funnier. It seems like everyone knew that it wasn’t up to much, and reacted accordingly. Landis filled the film with genre legends (Christopher Lee! Jenny Agutter! Ray Harryhausen!) and comedians (Reece Shearsmith! Stephen Merchant! Bill Bailey!) to keep the audience entertained, while the performances are all valiantly enthusiastic. Sadly, after a strong opening, Serkis gives into mugging while Pegg is saddled with the “sympathetic” role, and as such only really gets laughs early on. Fisher tries to make up for her Scottish accent with energy, which sadly doesn’t work, but there’s a nicely played rivalry between Wilkinson and Curry as the doctors. The real star is Pegg’s Spaced co-writer/co-star Jessica Hynes, who gives a hilarious performance as Hare’s drunk, amoral, lusty wife.
There are moments in which Burke and Hare works. The murders are nicely staged, with one in particular bringing happy memories of American Werewolf’s tube sequence, and when your cast is this strong they’re bound to wring a few laughs out of weak material. The cameos don’t really feel forced, instead they feel like a reward for sitting through the bits that don’t come together. For all its flaws, I didn’t hate Burke and Hare. It would have taken a lot for it to live up to my expectations. However, while it may work better in the comfort of your living room on DVD, this really was a missed opportunity.