The Big Picture
- Comedy surrounding the topic of serial murder is audacious and commendable, challenging taboos and untouchable topics.
Burke & Hare
is a pitch-black comedy that adapts a true story of two twisted businessmen who made a living from selling corpses to a medical university, played in the movie by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis.
- The film combines macabre humor, a talented cast, and a morbid true story to create an interesting and entertaining watch, despite its mixed critical reception.
Comedy is a subjective thing. What people find funny has always been incredibly diverse, from political satire to slapstick gags, to clever wordplay to gross-out jokes. Which joke or gag is considered funny and which distasteful, then, is determined by the values of the environment in which the joke is told. Pretty much anything can be funny in the right context, even death, but there’s one topic that pretty much anybody, no matter the culture, would agree is no laughing matter: serial killers. No matter the context, the act of a seemingly normal person deciding to murder innocent bystanders is one not to be taken lightly or toyed with for laughs… Or is it? Aren’t the taboos and the untouchable topics of the world just challenges for comedy to overcome? No matter your stance, it’s undeniable that an attempt at comedy surrounding the topic of serial murder, especially if it’s adapting a real-life tale of true crime, is commendable at the very least for its sheer audacity. Few comedies have tried to make serial killers funny, but the film of today’s article is one of the more direct attempts in mainstream cinema: 2010’s Burke & Hare.
William Burke and William Hare were two real-life serial killers who terrorized the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1828 with at least 16 murders. Contrary to what you might expect, these men weren’t driven by passion like most serial killers. No, they were twisted businessmen, who cornered the untapped market of selling fresh corpses to the Medical University of Edinburgh. This grim and morally gray tale of true crime was brought to the silver screen in the form of a pitch-black comedy by John Landis, director of ’80s comedy classics such as Blues Brothers and Three Amigos. The film stars Shaun of the Dead’s and Mission Impossible’s Simon Pegg alongside Andy Serkis — the legendary motion capture actor with roles from The Lord Of The Rings’ Gollum to The Planet Of The Apes’ Caesar. It may sound like a tasteless attempt at comedy (and to many, it was), but if your sense of humor is twisted enough, Burke & Hare offers an interesting adaptation of a fascinating true story that plays a substantial part in the history of medical, ethical, and legal advancements, all while retaining a respectable keen eye for historical detail and a surprisingly lighthearted tone.
Burke and Hare
A black comedy about two 19th-century grave robbers who find a lucrative business providing cadavers for an Edinburgh medical school.
- Release Date
- October 29, 2010
- John Landis
- Piers Ashworth , Nick Moorcroft
What Is ‘Burke & Hare’ About?
The year is 1828, and we find ourselves in the mossy reaches of Victorian Scotland’s capital. We’re introduced to the climate of Edinburgh by none other than the town executioner (Bill Bailey, one of the UK’s most beloved comedians) who sets the scene by addressing the audience directly: Times are hard and people are doing whatever they can to get by. Meanwhile, the two world-renowned medical schools of the city are at each other’s throats in a breakneck contest to push medical science forward by any means necessary. In the background, organized crime and violence run rampant, leaving the city in shambles and ripe for vultures to come in and pick at the pieces. Enter the two titular killers, William Burke (Pegg) and William Hare (Serkis), who, at first, spend their days being vultures, trying to come up with get-rich-quick schemes and scams. The pair is opportunistic and dishonest, but by no means murderous… yet. That will change not long after a certain event opens the floodgates and makes our two anti-heroes realize just how easily they can make a living from death.
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After a lodger that rents a room from Hare’s wife, Lucky (Jessica Hynes), suddenly drops dead, the pair make a ridiculously quick and substantial amount of money by selling the corpse to local medical lecturer and anatomist, Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson). This could’ve been a one-time thing, but Knox then says “Do bring me more if you happen to come across any!” inspiring the “entrepreneurial” spirit of the two Williams. Although initially stealing corpses from graves to sell them for medical research, the pair will quickly move on to living and breathing victims to keep their body count up, their profits high, and their “product” as fresh and unspoiled as possible. ‘Tis the dark, damp, and violent 19th century, where death lurks around every corner and life fetches little value compared to the corpses of the dead, so our two seemingly normal fellas don’t struggle too much with the moral quandaries of murder… It’s just business, after all!
Dr. Knox keeps happily buying the corpses of unknown origin that Burke and Hare “somehow” keep coming across, no guilt in sight as he plans to revolutionize humanity’s knowledge of anatomy by creating an anatomical map of the human body, which in his mind, means saving the lives of millions in exchange for a few nameless corpses. Knox also relies on the help of a crafty and inventive Frenchman (Allan Corduner), who built some sort of mysterious device that captures images in an instant painting. The three partners in crime continue to run rampant until their murderous affairs capture the attention of both the authorities and the local racketeers, all while Burke and Hare enjoy a luxurious life thanks to the riches they earn and the beautiful lasses and love interests (Isla FIsher and Jessica Hynes) whose affection they buy, all until their diabolical greed brings their whole operation inevitably crashing down around them.
‘Burke & Hare’ Is A Decent Comedy Mainly Held Up By Its Talented Cast
Andy Serkis and Simon Pegg make for a particularly charismatic slasher duo, and together, they generate most of the comedy of the film through their great chemistry and banter. The rest of the humor comes from pitch-black and slapstick gags of the most macabre kind, where the pair’s murders often end with darkly comical scenarios, such as struggling to hide a corpse in a barrel and resorting to smashing the victim’s spine and twisting him into a pretzel to squeeze in, only to accidentally let the barrel get away from them as they roll it down a hill. Another example of the film’s particularly twisted humor is a scene where the pair has a casual conversation about how they each want to die, all the while they sit on the chest and face of a dying man (a surprising cameo from Christopher Lee) to speed up the process.
If you can’t see a way in which you could find these sorts of situations funny, the film definitely isn’t for you, as few films make light of such grim situations like Burke & Hare. It’s a film that didn’t work for many, in fact, critically bombing and being considered far too grim, mean-spirited, and a failed attempt at lightheartedness for its dire subject and its true story with real victims. Although far from a comedic tour de force, the film’s playful approach to murder alongside dimwitted slapstick comedy, emphasized by the electric chemistry of its star-studded cast including Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, and Tim Curry, makes the film a fun watch, and it’s made all the more interesting from the fascinatingly morbid true story that is being adapted.
The True Story That ‘Burke & Hare’ Adapts Is Fascinating
The true story of the film proves to be fascinating when you learn of the importance of the pair’s murderous contributions toward the advancement of medical science and law. Their murders, and the morally bankrupt doctor who purchased the corpses knowing fully where they came from, provided a wealth of opportunities for studying anatomy in conditions not easily encountered. The 16 autopsies carried out by Dr. Knox thanks to the duo was an effective marketing strategy that brought in many new students to study medicine through sheer morbid curiosity, resulting in much-needed growth in the medical community. The pair’s murders also played a part in the creation of the revolutionary government bill called the “Anatomy Act 1832,” leading to a more civilized, humane, and ethical form of medical advancement. But still, let’s not forget that these guys were monsters despite their contributions to science!
The pair’s capture by the Edinburgh police also offers an interesting early example of a government cover-up, as the medical community had their involvement in the murders legally wiped — as well as their active encouragement. Through back-door dealings, William Hare was eventually offered a plea deal: if he confessed and blamed Burke as if these were simple crimes of crazed passion, all involved doctors and other accomplices, including Hare’s wife, would go free. William Burke would take the downfall, leading to his eventual execution and, in a poetically ironic twist of fate, his autopsy by the influential Professor Monro (played in the film by Tim Curry). In fact, Burke’s skeleton is still on display today at the Edinburgh Medical School.
Burke & Hare won’t make it onto anybody’s “favorite comedies” list, but its low-brow and grisly humor combined with the historical accounts it semi-accurately presents make it a perfectly decent watch if you’re a fan of either actor or if you simply enjoy comical twists in places where humor is usually nowhere to be found.
Burke & Hare is available to free to watch on Tubi in the U.S
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