“The Blues Brothers”/”An American Werewolf in London” director John Landis’ first feature film in over a decade opened to lukewarm reception in the West, despite this homage to the Ealing Comedies of the 1940s and ’50s (think “The Ladykillers”) boasting a chortlesome balance of comedy and gore. In early 19th-century Edinburgh — then the medical center of the world — real-life penniless Irish immigrants Burke and Hare (Simon Pegg and a rare no-CG Andy Serkis) give up on gravedigging and turn to more macabre means to meet the lucrative demand for corpses in The University of Edinburgh’s medical-research wing.
A few too many toilet jokes aside, the humor is black as death and funny as hell, with Landis finding bit parts for British comedians Bill Bailey, Stephen Merchant, Paul Whitehouse and even Ronnie Corbett. Pegg fans will also appreciate appearances by a few of his “Spaced” costars, including the wonderful Jessica Hynes as Hare’s calculating, comely wife. And of course, Landis knows his horror — there are plenty of merrily grisly moments as Burke and Hare gather their “surgical supplies.”
While parts are historically accurate, the film over-characterizes Burke as a soppy romantic who goes along with Hare in order to raise cash to support the thespian ambitions of the woman he loves (Isla Fisher). The real Burke and Hare were of course dastardly men, serial murderers whose price on life was cheap; Hare eventually sold even his partner down the river. Still, if you can’t laugh at a few well-executed murders, what have you got left?