Medical science has come a long way in the past two hundred years. Today’s doctors can remove tumors, replace organs, see inside the body in real time 3D and more. But these advances didn’t come from nowhere; they were built on the backs of medical research dating back to the beginning of written history. That rich history hasn’t always been a neat and clean affair either. One case in point is the story of William Burke and William Hare, two notorious grave robbers in the early 19th century who made their living providing the dead to medical colleges in Edinburgh, Scotland. Writers Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft teamed up with director John Landis to bring their story to the silver screen in the black comedy BURKE & HARE.
William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) are a pair of down on their luck con men looking for a way to make a quick buck. Unfortunately, things look bleak for them as even the boarding rental income Hare and his wife Lucky (Jessica Hynes) depend on to survive begins shrinking when one of their two tenants dies. Tasked with getting rid of the body, Burke & Hare stumble upon Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson), head of one of the city’s premiere medical colleges. Dr. Knox has a problem. Doctor Monroe (Tim Curry) has used his political influence to corner the market on cadavers. Knox pays Burke & Hare 5 pounds sterling (not a small sum in the 1820s) for the body of their tenant, promising the same for any additional bodies provided.
Burke & Hare quickly seize on this as the break they have been looking for and begin acquiring more bodies. A brief, unsuccessful turn at grave robbing provides no ‘product’ so the duo tries the more direct approach: murder. As their luck changes, Burke falls for a young actress, Ginny Hawkins (Isla Fisher) and agrees to produce her dream play: an all-female production of Macbeth. Hare also finds his relationship with Lucky improving as she joins in their nefarious endeavors. Unfortunately, the criminal element of Edinburgh and the police both take notice, and while the former wants in on the action, the latter wants to find the culprits and end the business of killing.
BURKE & HARE is based on a true story, but while the real events behind the legend are not so humorous, director Landis makes superb use of his talented cast to bring a true black comedy to life. Pegg and Serkis were perfect choices for the two grisly entrepreneurs. Serkis brings the same mixture of gleeful prankster and malevolent villain that he used playing Golem in the LORD OF THE RINGS films to the character of Hare. Pegg’s Burke, while still as guilty as Hare, comes across as more sympathetic and noble, a likeable man who does what he does, more to win Ginny than for any real greed, and never with malice.
In BURKE & HARE, limbs fly and blood spurts as the pair practices their grim trade, but the violence is tempered well by the humor. Cleverly blended into the story is everything from the proposed origins of photography, funeral parlors, and insurance, to the story of Greyfriar’s Bobby, a small dog that stayed with his master’s grave for 14 years after the man’s death. BURKE & HARE also features cameos from the likes of the legendary Christopher Lee, Jenny Agutter (reunited with Landis 30 years after the pair worked on AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON together) and the grandfather of special effects Ray Harryhausen, just to name a few. BURKE & HARE is a comedic gem that is not for the faint at heart. It is a rare film that mixes horror and humor as well as Landis’s adaptation of the story of two men trying to get a head in the world, by selling someone else’s. Check out BURKE & HARE and remember, it’s all true… except for the parts they made up.