There’s a British movie directed by John Landis called Burke and Hare coming out soon in America that’s pretty terrible. September 9th it comes out, and it’ll sink without a ripple. Even the publicity images are so lame, they seem to be warning people off. Make sure you miss it!
I’m only telling you about it to address a bizarre sociological phenomenon: apparently the Anglo-American world can’t produce black comedy anymore, just at the time when we should be better at it than ever. We’ve got so much material right in front of us, and our whole blustering histories now seem long build-ups to despicable, whimpering ends. With all that to work with, how can we NOT make great black comedies?
Burke and Hare is a boring attempt at a black comedy about the notorious, real-life “resurrection men” William Burke (played by Simon Pegg of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) and William Hare (Andy Serkis of Gollum fame, free for once from CGI). They were Irishmen struggling to survive in early 19th century Edinburgh who hit upon the scheme of supplying dead bodies to medical colleges through the simple innovation of murdering people instead of waiting for them to die.
Bodies were worth good money then to doctors trying to figure out basic human anatomy, and Edinburgh had become the Enlightenment capitol of medical research in Europe, while at the same time remaining the same old hellhole for ordinary people it had always been, filthy, disease-ridden, violent, and dangerous.
Boosting some hard luck cases out of all that squalor a little early, when the life-expectancy was probably around 35 anyway, must’ve seemed like hardly a crime at all. The wonder is that Burke and Hare had so little competition. But new Scottish laws against taking bodies directly from the hangman after execution, plus stricter enforcement of already-existing laws against grave-robbing, ruined the “resurrection” business for most practitioners. It’s always the way—so little true initiative even among entrepreneurs!
This is a great idea for a comedy, by the way. Burke and Hare should be wonderful. (The same historical material already inspired an excellent horror film produced by Val Lewton, called The Body Snatcher, with Boris Karloff.) Sure, period stuff can be hard to pull off, but there are such easy parallels to our own time, with the elite getting ever more ruthless and the hordes of regular people so desperate to survive somehow that inventive homicide naturally suggests itself.
Plus this film is an “Ealing Comedy,” nominally at least, and its whole black comedy pedigree should prop it up and make it sturdy and full of bloodsome glee. But Burke and Hare is an anemic little film unworthy of the Ealing name.
Wait, hang on, maybe you don’t know about Ealing Studios and the attempt, since 2000, to resurrect its proud name by attaching it to new films produced there. (The Ealing filmmaking site itself, in West London, has been in continuous use since 1902, and the studios are a mainstay of British cinema, but the Ealing name stopped being used around 1955 when the BBC purchased the bankrupt company.) If you haven’t heard about it, that’s presumably because the neo-Ealing-ites are mucking it all up.
Shaun of the Dead is the cream of their output among their films that’ve gotten any international play. Their Importance of Being Earnest in 2002 was a sickening travesty. I admit I haven’t seen their biggest grosser, St. Trinian’s (2007), which revived the beloved St. Trinian’s series of 1950s-’60 British comedies (NOT made by Ealing) about outrageous behavior at a supposedly proper British girls’ school, as indicated by the school’s Latin motto “in flagrante delicto.” In the original series, Alistair Sim played the school’s harrassed headmistress in drag.
The revival film didn’t get much play in America. Anyway, so far the new Ealing hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory.
The old Ealing Studies made lots of varied films from the 1930s – ’50s, but it’s best known for its post-WWII comedies like Passage to Pimlico, Whiskey Galore!, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Titfield Thunderbolt, The Maggie, and The Ladykillers. Possibly the two finest black comedies ever made are Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers. They’re so sharp and uncompromised, so tightly constructed and relentless, that really there’s nothing like them.
Just to give you an idea, Kind Hearts and Coronets is about a young man whose mother is ostracized by her rich, aristocratic British family because she had the temerity to marry an Italian tenor. When she dies poor and heartbroken, the young man decides to get the ultimate revenge by killing every relative who stands between him and the dukedom. All the relatives are played by Alec Guinness, and a more kill-worthy bunch of Tories it would be hard to imagine. The tricky thing is that the young man, as he ascends swiftly through the ranks via creative and successful homicides, reveals himself to be more and more like the relatives he despises, though he’s certainly the smartest and wittiest of the lot. In the end, when he’s the duke, he’s so smug, so full of airs of false nobility, he really needs to be killed himself. And the movie rewards us by promising to kill him, too.
So there’s old Ealing, with its searing, perceptive, and thoroughly thought-out comedies, and then there’s new Ealing with Burke and Hare, a slovenly mess. From the early shots of a generic Edinburgh framed by dull CGI backdrops to suggest the 1820s, it’s clear that director John Landis has got no idea to see him home. He just has a bunch of extras in period costume herding around in front of the camera pretending to be poor and disgusting.
Why hire Landis, for God’s sake? Was American Werewolf in London such impeccable evidence of his understanding of the so-called United Kingdom? John Landis was never much good even in his late ’70s-early ’80s prime; and now he’s getting on, and directing is a notoriously punishing profession. Even the best directors have about ten good years, maybe fifteen if they’re lucky, before they burn out of ideas and energy. Very rarely you’ll get a twenty-year man. It’s almost unheard of for a great director to be an old geezer, too. When you look at Martin Scorsese’s recent films and wonder what the hell happened to him, just remind yourself he’s 69 now, that’s what happened to him.
(I know, I know, you sensitive souls—what about women directors, you ask? But most will never get to test out whether there are great directors who are also old women. The opportunities are too sparse, the profession’s too unforgiving. Maybe someday.)
So Burke and Hare muddles along without inspiration. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis do their best as a pair of amiable mugs who sidle into murder not really meaning to do anything bad. Their first attempts are probably the liveliest parts of the film. They luck into a fresh dead body, which gets them their initial big payoff from the snooty prestigious Dr. Robert Knox, based on the real doctor who made use of Burke and Hare’s services but managed to get off scot-free after they were caught (Tom Wilkinson, playing the part remarkably straight).
Then they patiently try to wait out a sick old man (Christopher Lee) who’s clearly dying but hangs on so stubbornly they finally resort to smothering him (a murder method that came to be known as “Burking” in honor of the physically bigger of the two murderers who did most of the dirty work).
Then they wait outside a bar for a likely sot who obligingly falls down a flight of stone steps but gets up smiling, so they knock him down another flight and he still gets up, maddeningly unhurt. People are only so resilient when you want them to die.
But pretty soon the movie settles into regular, uninteresting killings, accumulating wealth, the men’s entanglements with demanding women (Isla Fisher, Jessica Hynes) who require steady income streams, and the looming consequences of their actions. Lotta plot, no laughs, no real angle on the material. Sometimes you wonder if the screenwriters and director actually understood what might be blackly and specifically funny about this harsh bit of history in the first place.
Or perhaps they just feared some of the dull-witted disapproval of people like Ray Bennett of The Hollywood Reporter in reviewing Burke and Hare:
“The real Burke and Hare were grisly thugs who murdered 17 victims and sold their cadavers to the Edinburgh Medical College. Their crimes were vile and disgusting, but Landis and the screenwriting team of Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft, who perpetrated the recent ‘St. Trinian’s’ films, regard them as jolly larks.
The two are depicted as happy-go-lucky rogues who stumble upon an entirely reasonable way to make a florin or two even if innocent people die in the process.”
Yeah, see, that’s just what we don’t need here, reviewers who are so morally shaky they feel they have to condemn murders that happened in the 1820s, and equally condemn a film about those murders that doesn’t exist just to condemn the murders. It’s like the jackasses who reviewed Steven Spielberg’s snoozefest Amistad and said it’s a great film because it shows us slavery was bad. These reviewers are constantly reminding themselves of the ABCs of morality, as if they’ve got no real grip on them. If you happen to find yourself alone in a room with one of these creeps, get out fast. Their hold on basic decency is so uncertain you can’t be sure what they’ll do.
Anyway, Burke and Hare is timid and dithering and blandly bad, and the new Ealing Studios seems unworthy of its inheritance, and it’s all just a damn shame.
Got something to say to us? Then send us a letter.
Want us to stick around? Donate to The eXiled.
Twitter twerps can follow us at twitter.com/exiledonline