Narrated by a hangman (UK stand-up comic Bill Bailey), the film takes the historical murders committed by 19th-century Irishmen William Burke and William Hare, and turns their story topsy-turvy, making them the heroes of this broad farce. The penniless schmoes Burke (Simon Pegg, “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”) and Hare (Andy Serkis, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) make bank by delivering corpses to sell to Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson, “The Green Hornet”), who dissects for teaching purposes.
While they lucky upon many, they plot to kill others in order to keep their pockets filled. After all, Hare has a wife (Jessica Hynes, “Son of Rambow”) at home to keep happy — a scene of her brainstorming business while deep in the missionary position is a highlight — while Burke is busy wooing a fetching but not-so-talented actress (Ilsa Fisher, “Confessions of a Shopaholic”). As business becomes brisk, the authorities start to tail our duo, as do several no-goodniks eager to carve a slice from their corner of cadaver delivery.
Drawing inspiration from both the soot-black humor of Ealing Studios comedies and rich atmosphere of Hammer Films period productions, Landis orchestrates the movie’s mix of physical and situational humor into a deft and economical offering. In particular, his unmistakable touch is evident in a sequence in which Burke and Hare deliver a dead body in a barrel, which promptly gets away from them on the cobbled streets. By the time they arrive at their destination, the poor thing is folded into angles found on the most advanced of geometry problems.
As with all of Landis’ work, viewers will want to keep an eye out for cameos. Here, they range from movie legends (Christopher Lee) and recognizable character actors (Tim Curry) to respected directors (Costa-Gavras) and film-geek icons (Ray Harryhausen). Among the leads, Pegg is his typical Pegg self (I find him best in smaller, supporting doses), while it’s nice to see Serkis in the flesh, rather than rendered into a CGI creature.
The real star, however, is Landis, whether or not audiences are astute enough to notice. We’ve missed you, John — now please do more! And, sorry, but episodes of “Psych” just don’t count. —Rod Lott