08 January 2012

Movies: Burke and Hare

Burke and Hare (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1320239/

Dark Comedy

Set in the 19th century Edinburgh, Scotland, William Burke and William Hare are friends trying to earn some sort of living. When they discover one of Hare's boarding house patrons has died, Hare's wife wants the corpse out of the house. They stuff the corpse in a herring barrel and roll it halfway across town before deciding to stop at a pub for a drink. Hare has a talk with a local he knows used to rob graves for corpses to sell to the medical school doctors. The city militia has been cracking down on grave robbing, strangling that source of income, and the local organized crime boss has moved on to other ventures. With a dwindled supply of corpses for dissection it is rumored that a certain Dr. Knox is willing to pay good money for fresh corpses. Hare takes the opportunity to make some money and dispose of the corpse. Dr. Knox pays them, and the trio strike a deal where they are to provide a corpse a week for Dr. Knox to use in his medical school.
When they discover fresh corpses aren't easy to come by Burke and Hare begin murdering people to supply corpses to Dr. Knox.

Although "I Sell the Dead" is similarly themed when it comes to body-snatching, "Burke and Hare" is based on the actual Burke and Hare behind the West Port murders. And it is a bit funnier too, and less silly. This is a dark comedy so of course it is fictionalized and not exactly true to historical details, and other historical details are polished up for comedic effect. For example one scene gives us the moment that "burking" as a term is defined. Burking is a means of homicidal asphyxia achieved by simultaneously smothering the victim (hand over mouth and nose) and compressing their chest, and was named after William Burke.

The film humanizes Burke and Hare. They are a couple of unemployed blokes with no prospects for employment doing what they can to get by. It puts the viewer in an odd space where you almost root for Burke and Hare even though you watch them repeatedly murder people to supply corpses to Dr. Knox for money. They really did this. And to drive the point home the end of the film treats us with a quick trip through the Edinburgh University Medical Museum to the display of William Burke's real skeleton.

Burke is played by Simon Pegg (Shawn of the Dead, etc). Hare is played by Andy Serkis (Gollum in Lord of the Rings, King Kong, etc).  We are also treated with other fine actors including Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry, who play Drs. Knox and Monro, competing medical school instructors and adversaries.
The film is directed by John Landis, probably best known for gems like The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Coming to America, Michael Jackson's Thriller video, Animal House, etc. Yeah, you've seen some of his films.

The film is dark, funny, and at times an intellectual multi-layered inspection of good and evil across social classes. Smartly done. It isn't a modern lowest common denominator blunt comedy of quips and punchlines and winks at the camera with hooks and fart and poop jokes. Well, there is a poop joke in there. It isn't pee-your-pants funny, it is dark gallows humor and measures of cross-social-class juxtaposition. The exploration of the moral quandary achieved when the advancement of medical science is furthered by the murder of folks. Not just that, but the budding growth of capitalistic enterprises built upon those ill-gotten monies.

In some ways reminded me of "Cannibal! The Musical". Mostly in the way "Cannibal!" is a dark musical comedy wrapped around real historical context.  "Cannibal! The Musical" is definitely worth watching too, especially if'n you think you'd like a history story about Alferd Packer's trip from Utah to Colorado that left accompanying party members dead and partially eaten, followed by Packer on trial, all punctuated with musical numbers (of course). The film is by Trey Parker and Matt Stone and comes from pre-South Park days. It is surprisingly historically accurate in some ways, which just adds to the humor.

"Burke and Hare" is not an out of the park hit, but a solid film. I liked it, it's entertaining and funny enough for me. Though I can understand that some folks just don't find dark multilayered comedies like this their cup of tea.

After seeing this film I get to wondering if perhaps I was too harsh on "30 Minutes or Less" for making a comedy based (more or less) on a real-life incident. When it comes down to it that really isn't any much different than this film.  I suppose I was more put off by how "30 Minutes" came out so soon after the real-life event (7 years), whereas "Burke and Hare" the film is 182 years after the events. Whether the terrible event happens within my lifetime or centuries before really shouldn't matter I suppose.

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