Shiny Shelf

Burke and Hare

By Jonn Elledge on 08 November 2010

Perhaps the most soul-sapping experience you can have at a comedy gig is seeing someone you like die on stage.

Watching some complete twatmonkey get torn to shreds by his audience can be quite fun, of course; but when it’s someone you admire, it’s very difficult not to feel complicit in their failure.

This communal humiliation, when you find yourself praying that the comedian will stumble onto something, anything, that’s actually funny, just to stop you from wanting the earth to open up and swallow you…

This is the only way to describe the experience of watching John Landis’ new film ‘Burke and Hare’.

It isn’t just that it’s bad, although clearly it is. It’s that the cast is so impressive, so well loved, that it pushes the film over the line from comic failure into abject humiliation.

The tone is ill-judged, the script devoid of wit, the performers’ failure startling. It’s like watching Billy Connolly going off on a rant about Pakistani shopkeepers.

The eponymous bodysnatchers-turned-murderers are played by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, and while they do their best, the filmmakers haven’t exactly made things easy for them. Pegg is placed in the unenviable position of trying to play a comedy serial killer as a romantic hero. This is almost exactly as effective a performance as one might expect.

Serkis at least specialises in playing grotesques, so doesn’t feel quite so miscast. But I’m not sure anyone could elicit more than a grimace from a scene in which he invents the funeral parlour business mid-doink with his game wench of a wife Jessica Hynes. The closest she gets to a laugh, incidentally, is passing out in some porridge. The sloth-like editing means this doesn’t have quite the rapier wit that that description suggests.

The cameos are no less vexing. Just about every part is played by an actor you like, and every one them gives the least amusing performance of their career. Christopher Lee pops up as a cadaver-to-be and croaks without uttering a word. Paul Whitehouse does a turn in which he sings a bit and falls down some stairs. Ronnie Corbett and Reece Sheersmith ponce about in uniform. Not a man among them does anything worthy of a giggle.

Just when you’re starting to think that, while it’s not going to make you laugh, it isn’t actually painful, it becomes excruciating. In what seems to be an attempt to justify the idea that a true tale of mass murder is ripe for comic re-telling, Landis chucks in a bizarre denouement of noble self-sacrifice and tries to claim that a financially motivated murder spree was actually all about love.

It certainly wasn’t historically; the script can’t sell this idea in the film, either.

If you were going to make a film about serial killers, you’d either want to make it clear that the murders themselves were no laughing matter; or you’d want to make the violence so funny that the film stops feeling like live action and enters the realm of the ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoon.

‘Burke and Hare’ doesn’t do either, and instead we get two hours of unspeakably unfunny slapstick. It’s like watching The Three Stooges make a snuff film.

And then, just when you think it can’t get any worse, over the end credits they play the Proclaimers.

Please, somebody, kill me.

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By Jonn Elledge

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