Rewind Review: 2010’s ‘Burke & Hare’

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Opening Credits: This is a true story. Except for the parts that are not.

Burke and Hare is a ghoulish black comedy based on the real-life exploits of 19th Century “body-snatchers” William Burke and William Hare.  It stars Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, The World’s End) and Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings, The Cottage) and is directed by John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, Thriller); it marks Landis’s return to filmmaking after a 12-year hiatus that began in 1998.  If you’re not already convince you need to see this movie…

Check out my review after the jump.

Official Synopsis: Based on the true story about the famous murderers, ‘Burke And Hare’ follows the hapless exploits of these two men as they fall into the highly profitable business of providing cadavers for the medical fraternity in Nineteenth Century Edinburgh, then the centre of medical learning. The one thing they were short of was bodies.

While Landis and screenwriters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft certainly play fast and loose with the facts surrounding the real Burke and Hare, the films is nonetheless populated by many of the actual people connected to the West Port Murders (as they were called at the time): Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) and Professor Monro (played with brilliance by Tim Curry), for example.  Whatever relationship these men had in real life, Landis sets them up as rival scientists.  A contest sponsored by the King himself sparks a fierce completion between them, a subplot that adds momentum to the story.  Curry is hysterical as the foot-obsessed academic; he has a direct hand in the cadaver shortage that becomes a source of consternation for Knox–and a serious motivation for Burke and Hare.

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Serkis is nothing short of awesome as the entrepreneurial and opportunistic William Hare.  One of the pleasures of the script is the way it allows him to frames all conversations about grave robbery and murder in economic terms.    Cadavers are the “Product” and the means of getting them are “acquisitions”.  The shortage of bodies for dissection makes their “Business Venture” a “Lucrative Enterprise”.  When “Demand” rises, it becomes necessary to “Expand the business”.  Serkis is the Master of facial expressions and can induce a laugh attack with his wild eyes alone.  His every word is shrewd, every motion is calculated.  While the character is 90%  charming and only 10% sleazy, the only thing that makes him truly sinister is the ease with which he deals in death.

William Burke is an entirely different animal; Pegg skillfully portrays a man in the throws of an “inner struggle between good and evil, right and wrong”.  Despite being Hare’s partner in “Industry”, Burke is a gentle soul with a genuine warmth.  And he’s lonely; another subplot involves Burke’s infatuation with a local dancer (Ginny Hawkins played by Isla Fisher) and his sponsorship of her theatrical production of an all-female version of Macbeth.  True, the danger inherent to his “Profession” means the money is ample, and money is the ticket to society’s highest echelons, yet Burke seems content to allowing Ginny to separate his from it.  Whether or not she feels genuine affection for her patron, or is merely playing him for a fool is a primary point of conjecture amongst the viewers and characters alike.  But whatever her intensions, Pegg emotes a sweetness that has us rooting for him, hoping he’s not a sucker being manipulated by his mate and his lady alike.

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Burke and Hare is loaded with obscure, historical allusions (a synonym for “smothering”, the inventor of Listerine, The Origin of Species) as well as delicious black comedy.  It’s not a Horror movie in the strictest since, but it has everything one could hope from a Landis film in terms of gruesome gallows humor.  There is occasional gore, but it’s cartoonish and very easy to stomach.  If you enjoyed films like Shaun of the Dead, Sweeny Todd, and I Sell the Dead, you’ll love Burke and Hare.

Check it out! 3.5 out of 5 Skull Heads.

Trailer: HERE

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Directed by John Landis
Produced by Barnaby Thompson Nigel Green James Spring Paul Brett Tim Smith
Screenplay by Piers Ashworth Nick Moorcroft
Starring Simon Pegg Andy Serkis Isla Fisher Tom Wilkinson Tim Curry
Music by Joby Talbot
Cinematography John Mathieson
Editing by Mark Everson
Studio Ealing Studios
Distributed by Entertainment Film Distributors (UK) IFC Films (US)
Release dates
  • 29 October 2010
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About Saucy Josh

I write a blog for intelligent Horror movie aficionados called Blood and Guts for Grown Ups: https://bloodandgutsforgrownups.wordpress.com/ View all posts by Saucy Josh

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