We should in no way begrudge John Landis his comeback with Burke & Hare, but might legitimately question why he felt the need to do it in Britain, rather than his native America? The director's peak 70s/80s achievements - that run of films that began with 1978's Animal House and, with a couple of exceptions, continued through to 1988's Coming to America - were slick and fizzy comedies, with sass in abundance. Yet the relocation, coupled with the obligations of working outside the Hollywood mainstream, has forced Landis with his latest to default to the kind of tatty pantomime that has become a staple of the revived Ealing Studios (St. Trinian's, Dorian Gray); Burke & Hare's abiding spirit isn't Jim Belushi or the young Eddie Murphy, but Michael Winner, believe it or not, who takes a cameo here as one of the titular bodysnatchers' earliest victims.
The script, by Ealing's in-house favourites Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft, retains a degree of historical context - as played by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis respectively, this Burke and Hare are definably Irish immigrants, meeting the demand of Edinburgh's rival medical schools for sliceable cadavers - but makes its first wrong move in recasting its central characters as romantic anti-heroes, entrepreneurs on the make who've spotted a gap in the market flogging the lifeless for pennies; the exact same ethos, one could say, as previously displayed by the film's own producers. "There's lots more product just waiting for us to dig it up," cackles Hare, a motto that might well come to be embossed above the doors of the new Ealing. The showbusiness parallels are only underlined by the subplot that sees Burke's actress love interest Ginny (Isla Fisher, with a Caledonian accent that belies her Christian name) seeking to raise "a consortium of investors" to back her all-female version of the Scottish play. (Sample joke, hardly reassuring coming from the writers of the leering St. Trinian's: "She's an actress, not a whore." "What's the difference?")
Serkis and Pegg - underplaying, if anything - are reduced to the standing of grimy nondescripts, overshadowed by more experienced character actors (Christopher Lee, Tim Curry, Tom Wilkinson) who, recognising the limitations of their material, resolve to ham it up for all they're worth, and fleeting appearances from very funny people (Paul Whitehouse, Ronnie Corbett, Stephen Merchant) given progressively fewer funny things to do. Not that there was all that much to begin with, actually. The anarchic wit that once flourished in Landis's comedies has here been replaced with a deadening period cosiness, punctuated by half-arsed displays of bad taste: sliced-open corpses are hardly ever the stuff of big belly laughs, and it seems an awful way down from Jenny Agutter's epochal shower scene in An American Werewolf in London to the sight of Andy Serkis fucking Jessica Hynes cross-eyed. I suppose we can be consoled by the fact Landis has made much, much worse (The Stupids, anyone? Oscar?), but this is mostly mediocre, with the rigor mortis of a complete stiff setting in around the edges.
Burke & Hare is on nationwide release.