Based on a true story, Burke & Hare follows the titular characters' discovery that the best way to earn a living in 19th century Edinburgh is by selling corpses to a local doctor for dissection in front of his medical students. The means with which they acquire the cadavers becomes increasingly perilous - and murderous. Before long, Burke (Pegg) falls for a sponging wannabe actress in a tedious romantic subplot, the libidinous wife of Hare (Serkis) finds out about their dastardly deeds, and the pair are both embroiled in a protection racket with a local crimelord. Plenty of japes and tomfoolery ensue - none of which are remotely funny.
It's hard not to feel sorry for Andy Serkis and Simon Pegg, as both are hung out to dry by the writing and direction. Their slapstick moments are so poorly shot and cut by Landis that no laughs are elicited, with one potentially funny bedroom encounter featuring Hare and his missus - as both chat about corpses during frantic coitus - somehow being sapped of energy and humour through the way its presented. It's strange to think that this is all helmed by the man responsible for An American Werewolf In London and Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video.
The undoubtedly talented central pair are also frequently captured shamelessly mugging to the camera after some woefully timed mishap, rather like Ricky Gervais's spoof sitcom character Ray 'Are you having a laugh?' Stokes in Extras. This is the logical extension of the unsophisticated dialogue, as the actors are equipped with painfully puerile lines like: "I had confidence in a fart once - and then I s**t all over myself."
For a movie that handles death, an awful lot of morbid curiosity is aroused through the plethora of cameos throughout. Christopher Lee, Paul Whitehouse, Bill Bailey, Stephen Merchant and, erm, Michael Winner all show up briefly at various points. None are deployed to any great effect, meaning that the whole enterprise resembles some kind of bizarre cinematic zoo. Signs stating 'Don't feed the actors (with a good script)' should have been erected. Only the aforementioned Corbett casting works well, as it's certainly amusing to witness the diminutive comic as a law-enforcing member of the Scottish militia. That casting selection reeks of authenticity next to Isla Fisher as Burke's Scottish ladyfriend, with her accent dodgy to say the least.
The overriding feeling that Burke & Hare is a wasted opportunity is compounded by looking at what Tim Burton managed with similarly nefarious subject matter in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. That production, albeit on a higher budget, was packed full of verbal wit, visual invention, engaging plotting and performances that were full of verve. Burke & Hare is sadly stiffer than a cadaver with extreme rigor mortis.
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