Notable Cast: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, Jessica Hynes, Christopher Lee
Review: “…Packed with the cream of British comedy talent.” Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Pegg, Hynes, Currey, and Stephen Merchant are all staples in the British acting community. Serkis himself has proven talented by his CGI work as Gollum and King Kong, but his acting has also stood out in movies such as The Prestige and King Kong, where he played the crazed chef Lumpy. But, that means f#ck all when the movie can’t properly use any of its actors correctly. The thing about John Landis is that he burst onto the directorial scene with films like Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and An American Werewolf in London; and that’s what we remember him for. There were other releases like Trading Places and Coming to America there weren’t totally useless; but still Landis’ glory years have been far behind him. He hasn’t released something relevant in culture for a good decade, minus his two “Masters of Horror” short films. So from the beginning I was already wondering why would this be the project that shows Landis’ return to form. We all just assume that because a director scores a few hits years ago, they’re due to come back into the spotlight. Well keep waiting, because Burke and Hare shows no signs of Landis returning to the cult horror status An American Werewolf in London earned him.
Landis tries to tell the story of real life murderers William Burke (Pegg) and William Hare (Serkis) in a light-hearted but dark tone. In the 19th century, when economic times were rough and medical science was in its early stages, people were making a living any way they could. Burke and Hare are your typical petty con artists, convincing the stupid into buying things like tonics or elixirs. That is, until Dr. Robert Knox (Wilkinson) shows the boys the value of a fresh corpse, and sets their newest plan of fortune forward. Raking in the dough, Burke and Hare start to run out of stiffs, making it harder and harder to conceal their secret income. Instead of grave robbing, the duo start to knock off townsfolk, bringing in a bigger profit because of their “fresh” state. Burke starts to worry about the consequences they may face if caught, but then meets Ginny (Fisher), and the income starts having a meaning to him. So on the two friends go, hacking and slashing their way to fortune. But to avoid the noose, secrecy has to be their first priority.
At least someone had fun with this…
Sounds great on paper, teaming Pegg and Serkis in a dark comedy about killing people for a profit. This was definitely something I got behind from an early stage as a horror fan, because this had potential to bring actual comedy to the horror comedy genre. I already listed Landis’ track record and expertise in gut busting comedy. Pegg himself made a hilarious splash with such films as Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, and recently Paul. Give or take Serkis, but his personality fit for the tone the film was shooting for, so even that was a positive point for everything. But potential is potential; it certainly never means that’s the exact outcome you’re going to get. What Landis did with the script given and translating that into the tone of the film did not work in the least bit, taking away the darkness the film should have possessed and instead shedding it in a sunny goofy light. The film tried to make the violence and murders charming and delightful in the same way much of the script was written for the other scenes, but the translation was lost. Landis could have gone gory, disgusting, and brutal to really elicit the darkness of the story to counteract the cheesy buddy comedy the writers interjected into the downtime. Instead, he has Burke and Hare jumping around like idiots, taking away from the atmosphere of what was really going on. It was supposed to be a horror comedy, but neither element was properly utilized in the least bit. Burke and Hare tried to play it extremely safe for a rated R film, and ends up shooting itself in the foot.
Another glaring mistake? Making Simon Pegg your second fiddle to Andy Serkis. Not to say Serkis was bad given what he had to work with, but Pegg is so much more of a proven comedic talent it was painful to watch his character be pushed aside for Serkis. That’s where Landis’ direction became a question mark, as I was striving for Pegg to break out and give us that hilarious moment like usual, but it just never came. The characters themselves were overblown cartoon characters essentially, but in the way of incompetent fools. Burke and Hare were more stupid than comical, like they were straight out of “Looney Tunes,” and the comedy the film ended up going for just didn’t translate into laughs. It was dull, pointless, and predictable. There’s a different between silly and funny; Burke and Hare deciding to go for laughs you would find in children’s programming, not in a dark horror comedy. We get the two rookie murderers are bumbling fools not cut out for the job without you forcing insultingly horrible gags and mindless immaturity into what could have been a dark and vicious story; no need to overkill the point.
Horror fans are going to be severely disappointed with this hack effort by a director that has established his name decades ago. Pay no attention to the poster. There isn’t a single part found to be “Highly Entertaining” or a single scene that can be described as “Very/Outrageously Funny.” As I said, I agree the cast is fantastic, but that doesn’t mean the characters are. Actors make bad movies sometimes, and banking someone like Simon Pegg to produce every time is just a fantasy. What could have been Landis’ comeback film was all for naught, and instead we get another bland entry into his long filmography list. The audience was there for a proper telling of Burke and Hare, but Landis didn’t play to them in the least bit. Better luck, if there is a next time.
Final Rating: 5 empty graves out of 10
Go ahead boys, you aren’t digging your way out of this one.