Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Burke & Hare: the Return of John Landis

William Burke and William Hare would definitely be considered working class, but they probably never put in an honest day’s labor in their lives. They do grasp some basic economics though. Edinburgh’s celebrated anatomy colleges have a large unmet demand for fresh cadavers. Even these two idiots understand how to increase the supply in John Landis’s Burke & Hare (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

For those who have been wondering where Landis (the director of such iconic comedies as Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and An American Werewolf in London) has been for the last decade or so, he was back in the UK (amongst other places, presumably), where B&H was shot on location in Edinburgh and at the storied Ealing Studios. Indeed, B&H has a charming period look, evoking the spirit of early Hammer horror films and Roger Corman Poe adaptations (which Landis can probably quote chapter-and-verse).

The two Williams are not evil per se, but they are definitely low lives. Largely they sponge off Hare’s wife Lucky, who rents rooms to elderly pensioners. When one tenant passes away before settling for the month, she makes the lads dispose of the body. However, when they discover the ambitious Dr. Robert Knox will be five pounds a pop for fresh bodies, it opens up a whole new business venture for them. Of course, it also attracts some unwelcome attention.

Though there is plenty of gross-out humor and a not inconsiderable body count, B&H might be too gentle for many midnight screening patrons. Rather, the film has a nostalgic feel, nicely established with Angus the Hangman’s introductory tour of the city. The Hammer vibe is further reinforced by an appearance from the great Sir Christopher Lee as Old Joseph, one of the gruesome twosome’s early victims.

Andy Serkis obviously gets it, reveling in Hare’s roguish degeneracy. However, Simon Pegg’s put-upon shtick as Burke gets a little tiresome, particularly with the subplot involving the manipulations of a gold-digging actress he is smitten with. After all, according to the old nursery rhyme: “Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,” not the knebbish soft touch.

However, as Knox, “the boy who buys the beef,” Tom Wilkinson chews the scenery with relish, channeling Peter Cushing and Vincent Price as a sophisticated man of science led astray by his enthusiasm and arrogance. He even gets off a mother joke at his rival’s expense worthy of Tracy Morgan. Indeed, B&H has a great supporting cast, including Tim Curry as the clammy Dr. Alexander Monro and Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, as Lord Harrington, the Solicitor General.

With an epilogue that could almost, but not quite, be considered educational, B&H is strangely endearing for a film about grave-robbing cutthroats. Yet, Landis manages to keep the tone light and breezy, while paying homage to the more innocent costumed horror films of old. It is entertaining enough to lead movie lovers to hope it is the beginning a full-fledged return to narrative features for Landis (who has been a talking head in scores of recent documentaries, including American Grindhouse and Machete Maidens Unleashed). Amusing and atmospheric, B&H is definitely recommended for genre fans when it opens this Friday (9/9) at the IFC Center in New York.