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December 16th, 2018

Burke and Hare: A Comedy Double Act?

I have a special reason for wanting the upcoming “Burke and Hare” to be good (Release date October 29, 2010 in UK, North American release tba).  My family folklore has it that I am descended from William Hare on my Mother’s side. It’s not really something to boast about; after all, they were murderers. My Mother regaled me with stories about them when I was a kid and I relished the dark tales with my fevered imagination. It was a horror story, all the more exciting because the family connection made it seem personal.

William Burke and William Hare were accused of killing people in order to sell their cadavers to Dr. Robert Knox. Edinburgh led the way in anatomical research and some doctors didn’t ask questions as to where the cadavers came from. Many were unceremoniously dug up from their graves. Knox was a respected figure and fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and he was happy to receive a steady supply of fresh cadavers to dissect for his lectures.

It’s a common belief that Burke and Hare were grave robbers but most reports refute this. The first cadaver they supplied was of a man they knew who had died of natural causes but the following 16 were the result of cold-blooded murder. Hare turned King’s evidence in exchange for immunity at the trial in December 1828. As for Burke…well, you’ll have to see the movie.

Excited at the prospect of the film, I watched the trailer with eager anticipation, only to be disappointed. Instead of the chilling drama I was expecting, it’s been given a knockabout comedy treatment. In fact, the word ‘farce’ springs to mind. What did I want from this movie? I wanted Gothic splendor, scary alleyways, foggy back streets, and a bowel churning look at the underbelly of 19th century Edinburgh.

Simon Pegg is one of my favorite comic actors and was perfect casting for “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” He’s too fresh faced and likeable to be my idea of Burke however. On the other hand, Andy Serkis as Hare is suitably grubby looking at least. He immersed himself wonderfully in the character of Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” and would do wonders with a dramatic portrayal of William Hare.

There is an impressive supporting cast of actors familiar to British audiences plus a love interest for Burke. Ginny is a comely wannabe actress played by Isla Fisher (Confessions of a Shopaholic). She’s even there on the official movie poster, so we know what a bodice-ripping romp this is.

Directed by John Landis, we are in the experienced hands of a comedy horror veteran. “An American Werewolf in London” was a lot of fun and influenced future horror movies. This is all well and good but it’s not what I want for this film. Perhaps, the job should have been given to Tim Burton. His Gothic sensibilities (just think of “Sweeney Todd” and “Sleepy Hollow”) would have satisfied my craving.

So, what’s next? A happy go musical about the Nazis? Ok, Mel Brooks did that with “Springtime for Hitler” but that’s different; that was satire. A comedy about Son of Sam perhaps or a singalong musical about John Wayne Gacy? The Burke and Hare story has been screened several times in the past and been mostly treated as a serious drama, as far as I know.

I think someone has missed a trick. “Burke and Hare” could have been the best chill fest for years, not a horror story as such, but a frightening tale of ruthless men doing unspeakable things to service a pillar of the establishment. Maybe it will bomb terribly. Then we can all forget about it and Tim Burton can get on the phone to Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter and do a proper job of it.

In addition to Hare’s blood running through my veins, I have a further connection with him. A distant relative had a close call at the murderers’ hands. One evening, she was walking home late from a dance and heard two men talking. It being late and a lonely road, she hid herself and listened to their conversation. They were discussing the lack of potential victims that night and one said to the other, “there’s nothing doing here tonight Willy.”

In one scene, Knox is in receipt of a stiff cadaver bent into an awkward shape. It refuses to cooperate and won’t straighten out. So, not only do we have sex but we have comedy with cadavers too. The story of two of the most notorious serial killers in British history has been reduced to slapstick.

I know it sounds silly but it feels like they’re dissing my family. Old great great great (I don’t know how many greats) Uncle Willy may have been a murderer but I would prefer him to be a figure of dignity, not a figure of fun. It’s enough to make him turn in his grave.


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