This isn't the first time the grisly true-to-life exploits of Burke & Hare have made it to the big screen. In 1960 Donald Pleasance and George Rose were the bumbling duo in John Gilling's vintage terror treat The Flesh and the Fiends - a film that headlined the illustrious Peter Cushingas a medical doctor who requires corpses for research endeavours. Then in 1972 came the undeservedly forgotten Vernon Sewell version 'Burke & Hare' which also played the horror elements dead straight. Now, under the revitalised Ealing Studios banner, John Landis' has reinterpreted the infamous West Port Murders of 1827-1828 as a comedic caper staring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as the deadly duo who go into a potentially lucrative body snatching business venture - which involves supplying cadavers to Tom Wilkinson's esteemed medical professor. It must have been an intriguing proposition; working at a revived Ealing Studios in an attempt to honour and amalgamate that era's renowned whimsy dark comedy genius with the macabre gleam of that other time honoured British institution that is Hammer horror. Then let Landis, (man behind Animal House and The Blues Brothers) loose to orchestrate the whole affair and throw in a host of amusing cameos by such stalwarts as Christopher Lee, his American Werewolf in London players Jenny Agutter and John Woodwine, along with Ronnie Corbett and a never better Tim Curry (as Wilkinson's smug, egotistical rival) and you should have the perfect potion for a homage heavy comedic treat, right? Unfortunately what might have looked great on paper amounts to an amusing but minor effort on screen. Ironically the problem lies in the fact that there's so much talent involved that the whole thing gets a little swamped - like a wayward Robert Altman ensemble. It doesn't help that most of the comedy falls foul to a rambling script that relies a little too heavily on the surprise power of bizarre appearances from the likes of Paul Whitehouse, Ray Harryhausen and er Michael Winner. And while Isla Fisher is good value as Pegg's energetic love interest her character's presence in the film also serves to slow proceedings down, even though it's intended to evoke sympathy for a thoroughly unsympathetic character. But the show's not a complete dud. There's good interplay between the two ideally cast leads; with Pegg's soft centred and easily led Burke rubbing up nicely against Serkis' more money motivated and mean-hearted Hare. It's also great to seeTim Curry's Cheshire cat smile lighten up the screen again - something we haven't really seen him do since Home Alone 2. While Landis, clearly enthused by the opportunity to work back on his first British production since American Werewolf, directs with an assured hand that successfully respects the Ealing/Hammer tradition he is trying to honour - the deadpan manner in which various townspeople (played by cameoing stars) meet their makers recall similar scenes in such dark Ealing classics as Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers, while the authentic 19th Century set design and visceral gore agreeably evokes Hammer's Victorian cobble-stoned horror indulgences. After a decade long hiatus we might have been expecting a little more from the man who gave us such gems as Animal House and Trading Places, but while no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination Burke and Hare is a minor return to form after the abysmal disappointments of Blues Brothers 2000 and, er, well Susan's Plan.
There are strong comprehensive interviews with most of the cast and crew, while various tried and tested deleted scenes and outtakes pad out the film's bonus material. Like the film it all feels a tad slacking rather than completely lacking. Burke and Hare is released on Blu-ray tomorrow.
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Oliver Pfeiffer is a freelance writer who trained at the British Film Institute. He joined OWF in 2007 and now contributes as a Features Writer. Since becoming Obsessed with Film he has interviewed such diverse talents as actors Keanu Reeves, Tobin Bell, Dave Prowse and Naomie Harris, new Hammer Studios Head Simon Oakes and Hollywood filmmakers James Mangold, Scott Derrickson and Uk director Justin Chadwick.
Previously he contributed to dimsum.co.uk and has had other articles published in Empire, Hecklerspray, Se7en Magazine, Pop Matters, The Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle and more recently SciFiNow Magazine and The Guardian. He loves anything directed by Cronenberg, Lynch, Weir, Haneke, Herzog, Kubrick and Hitchcock and always has time for Hammer horror films, Ealing comedies and those twisted Giallo movies.
His blog is: http://sites.google.com/site/oliverpfeiffer102/