Title: BURKE AND HARE
Year of Release—Film: 2010
Up the close and down the stair,
But and ben with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.
—19th-century Edinburgh jumping-rope rhyme
Any student of macabre history knows the true story behind Burke and Hare and their yearlong murder-spree in Edinburgh in 1827 that left 17 people dead. William Burke and William Hare, poor con men who immigrated from Ireland, learned that Dr. Knox of the prestigious Edinburgh Medical College needed cadavers for his anatomy lectures and they were all too eager to provide them for the cost of £10 each.
Their preferred method of dispatch was to first get the intended victim drunk, and then cover the victim’s mouth and nose until they died of suffocation (this method of murder became known as “burking’). Burke and Hare’s last victim was Marjory Docherty whose body was discovered by boarder Ann Gray who reported her ghastly discovery to the police. By the time the police arrived, Burke and Hare had already delivered the body to Dr. Knox. An anonymous tip sent the police to Dr. Knox’s classroom where the body was under-going dissection. The doctor, along with Burke and Hare were arrested but the doctor was soon released. Hare was offered immunity from prosecution if he confessed and agreed to testify against Burke. He did and Burke was publicly hanged on Jan. 28, 1829. Ironically, his body was sent to the Edinburgh Medical College for public dissection. There is no information of what became of Hare.
“This is a true story. Except for the parts that aren’t.”
So begins BURKE AND HARE (2010) with Simon Pegg as William Burke and Andy Serkis as William Hare with Tom Wilkinson as Dr. Knox. Bill Bailey plays the hangman who tells us this grim story of murder for profit while he dispatches the latest criminal and sells off the body to the highest bidder from two warring Edinburgh teaching colleges. The law at that time decreed that only executed bodies could be used for dissection, pitting Dr. Knox against his rival, Dr. Monro (Tim Curry) in competition for legally obtained cadavers. Enter Burke and Hare, two dim-witted but likeable con men trying to make a living in the mean streets of Edinburgh while William Hare’s dipsomaniac wife, Lucky (Jessica Hynes), runs a low-class boarding house.
One evening, the two Billies return home to find Lucky angry that one of her boarders has died owing her £4 rent. She orders the two men to get rid of the body before it begins to stink up the place. Bundling the body into a herring barrel, they decide to dispose of it by dumping it off the wharf. But first, a dram wouldn’t hurt so, parking the barrel outside, they enter a local pub. There they over-hear a man discussing a newly passed order that gives Dr. Monro sole ownership of all executed bodies, leaving Dr. Knox with none. And Dr. Knox, who usually pays £3 per corpse, would probably pay double that now. Pleased with the thought of not only getting rid of this body but also making some much-needed money, the two roll it on over to Dr. Knox’s house. Dr. Knox is delighted and informs the pair that should they come across any more unfortunates, he would willingly take them off their hands for a handsome fee!
Lucky, delighted by the money, drinks her way through two bottles of wine and then informs her husband and Burke that another boarder has died owing rent. But, going upstairs, they discover that Old Joseph (Christopher Lee) is not dead, only dying. They decide to help him along his way and sell his body to Dr. Knox.
Now we get to the “Except for the parts that aren’t” section of the intro. Dressing as dandies, the two Williams go to a local gin mill where Burke instantly falls in love with the curvaceous Ginny (Isla Fisher), a part-time prostitute and dancehall girl with dreams of the legitimate stage. In order to make her dream of an all-female version of MACBETH come true, Ginny needs a sugar-daddy and Burke, who is passing himself off as a wealthy medical supplies salesman, seems a likely patsy. So, in order to fund Ginny’s dreams, Burke, with Hare in tow, begins reducing the slum population of Edinburgh one resident at a time. Meanwhile, an officious but diminutive Captain Tam McLintoch (Ronnie Corbett), alarmed by the upsurge of missing persons reports, begins his investigation. And the Doctors Monro and Knox crank up their rivalry, vying for the King’s Royal Seal in a competition to see who can further medical technology in anatomy.
BURKE AND HARE is director John Landis’ first theatrical release in over a decade and his first “across the Pond” since AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981). And it’s proof that he has not lost his sense of black humor. From a screenplay by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorecraft, this movie delights the audience with wonderful sight gags (the scene where Paul Whitehouse is pushed down the stairs is priceless!) and never loses its pacing. The scene where Jessica Hynes has a “eureka moment” inventing funeral parlors is hilarious! The period costuming and sets harkens back to the old days of Ealing Studios, where it was shot.
In an Oct. 20, 2010 interview with UK’s The Telegraph, John Landis is quoted as saying, “It is a very delicate balancing act that we need to do in the movie because really these two were horrible men, really evil, but we’re aiming for a very, very black comedy, and to make it work we need the audience to like them. We’re turning these psychopaths into romantic leading men.” Landis succeeded in that quest! Bolstered by a fine supporting cast of British comedy icons that include Ronnie Corbett, Tim Curry, Bill Bailey and Reese Shearsmith, Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis shine in the lead roles. Is it a perfect comedy? No. Sometimes the black humor crosses over to knockabout pantomime and schoolboy jokes. But, over-all, this movie never loses sight of what it’s aiming for. Not yet released in the United States, it truly deserves an official DVD release. With a John Landis commentary track, please!
Enjoy! And I know you will!