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Non-Review Review: Burke & Hare

I quite like black comedy. There’s definitely a place for the more bitter strain of humour on the big screen, and there’s no denying that the British do black comedy wonderfully – it’s like a national trait of some kind. However, there’s something even deeper and more unpleasant than the black comedy at the heart of Burke & Hare. As I watched it, I couldn’t quite get the fact that it was based on two very real serial killers who (to this very day) have made a lasting impact on Scotland’s political and social history. There’s something very trite about turning their story into a black romantic comedy with a soundtrack from The Proclaimers.

They haven't a leg to stand on...

In case you need a refresh on your British history, Burke and Hare were the two famous serial killers in Edinburgh history who made a living supplying “raw materials” to the local college of surgeons. When their method of procuring these bodies came to light, there was a huge scandal, an execution and massive revisions to te Scottish legal system so as to avoid anything like this ever happening again. Their impact on the local history of Scotland is so strong that, even today, you’ll occasionally hear urban myths about similar killers on the prowl (known as “burkers”), preying on children.

The real Burke and Hare were predators, picking on tenants staying at their lodging house. They would typically ply their subject with alcohol and then suffocate them by shoving a pillow over their face and sitting on the chest – a method which is still known as “burking”. They picked on the mentally handicapped and various other individuals who they felt wouldn’t be missed and – by the time they were caught – they had killed 17 people.

The militia was a little short-staffed that day...

I don’t have a problem with a movie tackling the subject, even though it has been taboo for many years. Dylan Thomas had to change the names when writing about the murders in his 1953 screenplay The Doctor and the Devils, and the names remained changed when the film was finally made in 1985 starring Timothy Dalton as “Dr. Rock” (the character in the role of the real Dr. Knox). I don’t even have difficulty with a black comedy tackling the subject. However, things get more than a little uncomfortable when the movie tries to portray Hare and (especially) Burke as almost heroic figures, compelled to desperate measures by their own circumstance.

The movie takes various historical revisions and shortcuts (for example, they targets of the pair and their stalking grounds). It invents a love interest for Burke, which motivates him to murder in order to support her. While Hare is undoubtedly the more conniving of the pair on screen, he’s nothing compared to his real life counterpart – there’s no scene, for example, of Hare breaking the back of a blind young boy. Burke himself tries to compare the two would-be entrepreneurs to Shakespeare’s MacBeth, which is a bold move for the film – if only because it’s awkward to directly compare the film you’re making to the works of William “bloody” Shakespeare.

However, it’s fascinating that the film seems to paint Burke as an almost tragic figure. He’s not wily as his business partner, and the movie repeatedly laughs at how innocent his affection for actress Helen McDougal. in real life, the couple had been living together for years, and McDougal would be complicit in the murders, but let’s not dwell on that. Burke pretty much stares at the actress with big puppy-dog eyes and refuses to talk about her in anything but the most respectful of terms. It’s his desire to help her fulfil her dreams which motivates his part in the murders (thus, he is not motivated by avarice or even lust – but what the movie attempts to portray as genuine love).

Is she going to get "Burked" tonight?

The movie attempts to overlay a standard comedic formula over the events, which doesn’t really work. In particular, it attempts to make Burke – as played by Simon Pegg – the sympathetic lead, to the point where he comes out of the whole film almost looking like a hero. This drastically rewrites history, and is remarkably unfair to any of the victims of the serial killer. I’ve remarked before that any handling of Jack the Ripper in popular culture makes me slightly uncomfortable (as he was a serial killer, and he did take many lives, so making entertainment fodder of him seems… awkward), but there’s something more fundamental at play here – while various books and films and television shows may handle the Ripper murders, you’d have to look pretty hard to find one that makes him out to be a hero. However, Burke here is actually a nicer guy than most of the characters Simon Pegg has played over the years, despite being a serial killer. The movie even gives him, after a fashion, his own “happy ending.”

Andy Serkis actually does much better with Hare. There’s a wonderful sense of darkness in his portrayal of the more wily partner in the endeavour – you get the sense that Serkis isn’t afraid of the fact that he’s playing a rotten or despicable character who has his own reasons for acting a particular way. You don’t ever hate Hare, but you get the sense that you should be cautious around him – without the movie ever making him seem “evil” or anything similarly cliché. I get the sense that the darkness in the role doesn’t come from the script, but is a choice on the part of the actor – I’m fairly sure that the script would be content to play Hare as a lovable rogue as opposed to Burke’s more honest love-sick puppy.

You have to take your Knox...

The film itself is actually quite competently made. And I did find myself laughing once or twice (particularly the portrayal of the Edinburgh militia as three guys), but I always felt quite uneasy afterwards. The cast is actually quite impressive, and some of the dark subject matter works quite well (for example, Burke and Hare’s failed murder attempts are darkly hilarious, perhaps because they never actually happened). Tim Curry, in particular, steals the handful of scenes that he appears in. It’s good to know that he’s still got it after all these years.

Burke and Hare is hardly the triumphant return that director John Landis might have hoped for. In fact, I reckon David Tennant is counting his lucky stars that he dropped out of the production (although he’s yet to really do anything since leaving Doctor Who). It’s a film which never really gets past the core problem of not only asking the audience to root for a pair of serial killers, but also to treat them both as heroes.

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9 Responses

  1. That’s a real shame. I had high hopes that returning to the UK for a dark horror comedy might result in another American Werewolf In London.

    I suppose the film might play a bit better in America where the crimes have a bit less cache (I know of them because I know The Val Lewton/Robert Wise film The Body Snatchers). They’re not unknown but they’re not well known.

    Still it shows you can gather the right cast, the right genre and the right spirit and still have everything go wrong.

    • Yep. It’s just strange. I think it was just too “cutesy”, but you’re right – perhaps it’s a cultural thing. I think that the pair are less of a grim set of villains to Americans, so it might work. I don’t want to sound like a prude when I say it seems the tone is wrong – but it seems as if the movie wasn’t even fully aware of how in bad taste it was (unlike, say, Team America). It was just like a regular comedy with two familiar names attached.

  2. I thought I spied Andy Serkis in that image before the jump. Too bad it’s such a blunder. I might still have to see it.

    • See it, maybe it’s a cultural thing that I don’t like it – but it just felt really awkward, like there was a great big elephant in the room. It has some moments, but it’s also just a very strange film. And not strange in a good way.

  3. Does anyone know of any good documentaries about this. I saw the STV documentary on UK tv when the Burke and Hare movie came out but didn’t think it made what happened very clear.

    • I don’t, unfortunately. Must of my info is garnered from trashy old magazines and books and good old wikipedia research.

      • I thought there was this one called Burke and Hare The Body Merchants but I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Oh well thanks anyways.

      • Sorry, Bryan.

  4. Bryan,

    I believe you mean “The Body Merchants: The Shocking Truth about Anatomy Murder” which can be found at http://www.burkeandharedvd.com

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