John Landis has done some extraordinary things in the past that have made their mark on cinematic culture: An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places, The Blues Brothers, Animal House and not to mention the ‘greatest music video of all time’. As well as some terrible things which don’t need to be mentioned again in polite company, like Oscar. However Landis has been away from film for well over a decade after the humongous flop that was Blues Brothers 2000, which according to him was ‘fucked over by the studio’.
Ealing Studios have equally produced some remarkable films, The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Lavender Hill Mob and too many greats to mention but they have also been away from producing features for a long time. Now the two powerhouses come together for to produce a comedy remake of Burke and Hare about ‘Edinburgh’s most famous grave robbers’ who go into the business of killing and delivering fresh corpses to Dr. Knox so he can continue his anatomy lectures, much to the detriment of his rival Dr Monroe. It is intended to be a loving call back to the brilliant dark humour of the old Ealing classics, but it fails on all fronts.
Comedies are there to be funny, there primary intention is to make you laugh and if a film whose intention is to be a comedy doesn’t make you laugh, the film isn’t a good comedy. It has failed. I have seen Burke and Hare not once but twice and both times I sat in the cinema in a catatonic state and didn’t laugh once.
Odd because I went in with reasonable expectations, I like Landis and really enjoy seeing Andy Serkis and Simon Pegg on screen, and thought when brought together they would be a great comic pairing. Granted they have terrific chemistry together and obviously enjoyed working on the film, but they are given a lumpen script to work with which does them no favours.
A lot of the jokes are incredibly misjudged or simply not funny a result of being in films that we have seen before. When you resort to gags about shit being thrown on people and a squeamish policeman who faints 3 times, you know your script is a bad one. In fact, I’m surprised Landis hadn’t seen this coming, the screenplay he’s given is written by the men who retooled St Trinians and its sequel, which were both ghastly.
The problem is that the film has the maturity of the St Trinians remakes and the gore of a Romero movie, everything is ridiculously over the top in both screwball, dumb comedy and dark humour. For someone who has a great background in both these areas, Landis should have known how to balance this and make them work together.
However, someone clearly hasn’t told Landis that black comedy does not constitute of just showing a high level of gore and open bodies. On top of this, another person has forgotten to tell him that jokes about dead bodies which were funny 35 years in Monty Python and the Holy Grail are not funny when regurgitated by someone else who aren’t the Pythons. It’s so bizarre Landis hasn’t got this right, considering he made American Werewolf in London, still widely regarded as one of the best horror comedies of all time.
The film also throws away the talent of some very god actors who could thrive in this material. For the first time in ages I have seen Tim Curry provide a performance where he plays a villainous persona who isn’t chewing the scenery like a bloodthirsty lion. Tom Wilkinson, a great actor, does his best despite suffering with the Scottish accent, but in fairness he isn’t alone in this. Ronnie Corbett is a surprise addition to the cast and is decent, but where you think they’d make an obvious sight gag about height they fail, as we know Ronnie isn’t the tallest of people.
There are also some of the usual Landis grandstanding cameos, which he gets a collection of his famous friends and puts them in films to almost have them as trophies to show off. So we have a facile cameo by Christopher Lee in which I could not understand a word he was saying, others include Michael Winner, Paul Whitehouse, Stephen Merchant and Jenny Agutter. They all call too much attention to themselves and are incredibly distracting and pulled me out of the film, causing me to point and say their name: “oh that’s Jenny Agutter, she was in American Werewolf”.
This is probably more damning of the film which is so dull and stale that it simply stops without anything happening. Again this is bizarre for Landis who usually has moments in his films where he goes completely over the top, goes beserk and has a car crash or six. Here a car crash would not have gone entirely amiss, the closest we get to a chase or action sequence is when our heroes chase a runaway barrel with a fresh cadaver stored inside. Laughing… didn’t think so.
It is a relief it isn’t much longer than the 90 minutes because I couldn’t stand another minute of the monotony occurring on the screen. If it was simply intended to be a foot hold for Landis to step back up into feature filmmaking I could forgive it, however it hasn’t made enough money in the UK to justify the film or indeed if he is ready to go back into cinema yet.
Burke And Hare is a damning return for Ealing. It's self conscious and off putting cameos ruin the film. Full of misjudged humour, mixing immature humour with overly mature gore makes this one not funny in the slightest.