Edinburgh, 1825. Dr Knox (Tom Wilkinson) needs cadavers for anatomy lectures and neerdowells William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) need to dispose of the remains of a lodger who has died in the boarding house owned by Mrs Hare (Jessi
The last stab at this story was the po-faced historical melodrama The Doctor and the Devils and a long, disreputable tradition of body-snatching horrors draws on folk-tales about the infamous Burke and Hare – who were actually too lazy to be proper resurrection men (which involved digging up corpses) and found murder an easier path to profit. So, the seemingly strange teaming of director John Landis and a revivified Ealing Studios take a different tack and mix historical research with good-natured (if gruesome) knockabout.
It makes an odd decision to spend a great deal of time on Burke’s peculiar whim of sinking all his murder profits into an all-female production of Macbeth starring a girl he meets in the pub, when the real relationship story is the one in the title. Though Jessica Hynes is a welcome presence as a lusty, avaricious Mrs Hare, the heart of the film is the double act of Pegg and Serkis as the appealing/appalling facilitators of all manner of horror. Pegg is sweet, fallible and conscience-stricken and Serkis slyer, manipulative and amoral, but the best scenes have them squirming together.
Few filmmakers have such enthusiasm for their subjects and their casts, and Landis indulgently finds room for everyone on his friends list: Christopher Lee ought to be in every film like this and is accordingly given a one-scene bit, Paul Whitehouse falls down stairs (though the less-known Tom Urie is the funniest, most affecting victim), Ronnie Corbett furiously commands an inept militia, Tim Curry steals scenes as Knox’s oily rival, Allan Corduner does funny French, David Hayman and David Schofield are proto-gangsters and Bill Bailey is a garrulous hangman. There’s room for Landis’s trademark director cameos, from Michael Winner and Costa-Gavras (!) and historical name-drop bits for William Wordsworth and Greyfriars Bobby.
It doesn’t all work and moves so swiftly you sense deleted scenes to come, but it has a genial, engaging feel which still allows for a few proper suspense and horror scenes.
Against all the odds, its surprisingly educational about a blood-spattered page in medical history even if it whitewashes the truly despicable title duo (Hare, in particular, was one of the worst villains who ever drew breath). Its generally entertaini