It's appropriate that Burke and Hare (2010), John Landis's long-delayed return to feature filmmaking should bear the name of Ealing Studios. Ealing, after all, made its name with quirky comedies laced with gallows humor in such films as Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers, and they produced at least one genuine masterpiece of a horror film in Dead of Night. Even at their sunniest, Ealing's films often had a whiff of Halloween about them, even if they never really went in for the kinds of shocks Hammer Studios would pioneer a decade later. Hammer's biggest star, Christopher Lee is in this film, and thus acts as a bridge between their traditions, while adding a touch of class and a smidgen of horror movie cred to a film that's a sweet-tempered black comedy at its heart.
As the title suggests, this is another retelling of the Burke and Hare story, so popular with horror filmmakers across the decades. This is very much the handsomest version of the story that I've ever seen: shot in Edinburgh where the original crimes took place, with an attention to historical details that fleshes out not just the crimes of William Burke and William Hare, but also the milieu into which their story takes place. There's a sociological element to the way that this heads into the lives of the high and the low, a Dickensian portrait of class differences. Burke is played by Simon Pegg and Hare by Andy Serkis, and the two are well matched to the roles of amiable grave robbers who turn to murder because demand for their product is so high. Among the faces they consort with are Jessica Hynes (Pegg's Spaced co-star) as Hare's conniving wife, Isla Fisher as the aspiring actress who catches Burke's fancy, Jenny Agutter reuniting with director Landis for the first time since An American Werewolf in London all those years ago, and Christopher Lee, of course . At the other end of the social spectrum is Tom Wilkinson's Dr. Knox, their high-minded, arrogant patron, and his circle, which features Tim Curry as his chief rival, as well as various filmmakers making cameos (including Costa-Gavras and his family, Ray Harryhausen, and Michael Winner). As I was watching this, I had a brief moment where I thought that Burke and Hare movies staring Lord of the Rings actors might be a small mini-genre (I Sell the Dead, another version, had Dominic Monaghan, while this version has Serkis and Lee).
The beginning of the movie tells us that this is a true story except for the parts the filmmakers have made up, and I suspect that this is closer to the actual facts of the case than most versions, but it still embellishes things to provide entertainment. The primary embellishement is Burke's infatuation with Ginny Hawkins, which provides a motive for his crimes. He wants to finance her version of Macbeth as a means of wooing her. Also embellished is the final disposition of William Hare and his wife, but that's movies for you. This is remarkably close to the facts of the case and to the social scene of the day to the point that it is able to make some pointed and fun historical jokes and references. The dog in the cemetery during Burke and Hare's first grave robbing, for instance, is famous and accurate, as is Dr. Munro's predilection for feet.
Landis himself describes Burke and Hare as this films conceives of them as an "evil Laurel and Hardy," and that informs some of the comedy in this film. The problems of hauling bodies is reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy's piano-moving gags with the added sweetener of the threat of discovery. I like to think this is the sort of Burke and Hare film that Hitchcock might have made if he had had the motivation. Landis has certainly made a study of Hitchcock, particularly Frenzy and The Trouble with Harry. Still, this is very much a post-modern movie brat sort of comedy. The jokes are sometimes scatological even when they're historical. The best of these is Munro's complaint about Dr. Lister's breath, but there are other, subtler jokes. The comedy is undercut by the grue. This isn't a violent movie for the most part: the murders themselves are historically accurate in this regard. Their first victim, as the historical first victim was, is a drunkard named Joseph whom Burke and Hare sit on to encourage him to expire. "Burking" has an inherent horror to it, and even though the film makes a joke about this scene, it falls flat. The scenes of dissection later in the movie tend to push this into the territory of the horror movie, and the photographs Knox makes of the procedure are the stuff of nightmares.
In all this is an uneasy film. It's well-made, gorgeous to look at, stocked with interesting faces, and festooned with good performances (Jessica Hynes is particularly good). But it's a film that just doesn't work because it can't find the balance between comedy and horror. Landis has struggled with this in his other horror movies, too, so it's not out of character for him. Still, this is fun to watch, flaws and all.
Current Challenge tally:
Total Viewings: 9
First Time Viewings: 8
Lots of links today, so let's get too them.
The ladies over at Fascination with Fear have been knocking it out of the park all month, even though they aren't doing the challenge, per se. Their latest posts look at the influence of urban legends on the horror films and are exhaustive. Check out the rest of their October offerings, too.
Longtime commenter Chris Hewson runs the fabulously titled Not This Time, Nayland Smith, and he's been bringing it for October, too. Check out his latest pieces on Joe D'Amato's Frankenstein 2000 and Messiah of Evil, and poke around the rest of his site while you're at it.
The prolific Behind the Couch does Lovecraft today and has a terrific look at Stuart Gordon's Castle Freak, a disappointed experience with Die, Monster, Die, and finds some things to like about The Dunwich Horror.
The Scarecrow over at The Scarecrow's Blog From the Dark Side thinks that even Lee and Cushing struggle to elevate The Skull and then ruminates on the grandfather of the anthology film (and a personal favorite of your humble bloginatrix), Ealing's Dead of Night.
The Girl Who Loves Horror slogs through The Howling III: The Marsupials, and wonders what the hell she's gotten herself into.
The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense looks at American Mary and joins the consensus that it's good, but should be better.
Dr. AC slogs through the challenge with The Signal (which he likes a lot), American Gothic (which he says is "routine"), and finds the Israeli film, Goldberg and Eisenberg to be "flawed but watchable." Aaron is always evenhanded and wide-ranging.
Justin at The Bloody Pit of Horror is insanely prolific. His latest looks at the experimental French film, Piège with some impatience.
Finally, catching up with Tim Brannan at The Other Side, who has posts on Dario Argento's version of Dracula, Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster, the anthology, Tales that Witness Madness, then veers toward witchcraft films with Black Magic Rites and The Virgin Witch.