The arrival of a new John Landis film used to elicit the kind of lofty expectations that come with being one of the most successful comedy directors of all time. But by the ’90s, new Landis films had to compete, unsuccessfully, with the memories of Animal House, An American Werewolf In London, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and Coming To America, and Landis’ last narrative feature, 1998’s Susan’s Plan, went direct to video. The new Burke & Hare offers many pleasures, chief among them the return of the Landis of old.
Straight man Simon Pegg and rakish Andy Serkis star as a pair of ne’er-do-wells in an 1820s Scotland so grim that the poor are literally worth more dead than alive. Fevered competition among doctors looking for corpses for medical purposes has pushed the price of the dead skyward, and Pegg and Serkis are keen to cash in on the boom. When bodies don’t pile up quickly enough, the enterprising young men take a proactive, Sweeney Todd-like approach to their work that’s more aggressive than the law allows. Isla Fisher co-stars, and radiates charm, as an enterprising young actress and theatrical impresario intent on mounting the first all-female Macbeth with Pegg’s assistance and largesse.
Burke & Hare begins with beefy narrator Bill Bailey performing a rapturously received hanging. It’s a bold opening that establishes both the unbearable conditions under which the protagonists live and a tone of chipper morbidity. Burke & Hare impishly posits its grim goings-on as a back-door pathway to progress. Doctor Tom Wilkinson seeks to win an important medical contest using a newfangled contraption called the “photograph,” while Serkis hopes to segue smoothly from grave-robbery (and corpse-creation) to a related business called the “funeral parlor,” and Fisher wants to fund theatrical innovations with Pegg’s blood money. Burke & Hare at times resembles Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow, another self-consciously slight comeback from a major filmmaker who had been off wandering the show-business woods for too long. Like Meow, it’s a minor but welcome return: Hopefully, Hare will do more for Landis than Meow did for Bogdanovich, but considering the project’s less-than-commercial nature, it’s probably wise to keep expectations modest.