The astute patron of horror cinema may take a quick glance at the pitch-black Burke and Hare and feel a strong air of familiarity, one that says "Hey, do I really need to see another version of the fact-based tale that was already covered in The Flesh and The Fiends (1960), The Doctor and the Devils (1985), and I Sell the Dead (2008)?" And in many cases the answer would be "nah," but there are actually some rather interesting components at work here. The director is John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London), and it's been a very long time since we've seen a feature from that guy; the writers are the team behind the popular St. Trinian's series; and the cast is... well, it's a whole lot of fun.
No stranger to dark comedy, Landis takes to the familiar story rather well: William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) are not above grave-robbing if it means a handful of silver from any of the local surgeons, but once the graveyards dry up, our devious duo prowl Edinburgh at night, matter-of-factly murdering stray drunkards and heading off to the medical college with a nice, fresh stiff. Needless to say there are numerous complications: wives and lawmen; competitive doctors and double-crossing competitors, etc. Landis does a fine job of allowing an eclectic batch of grimy characters bounce off of one another in typically farcical fashion, and even if the plot slows down or a few scenes don't work, you'll have no shortage of familiar faces to enjoy.
In addition to the aforementioned Pegg and Serkis (who, not surprisingly, strike a very amiable chemistry together), Burke and Hare features fun moments (or least quick appearances) from people like Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, David Schofield, Michael Smiley, Isla Fisher, Pollyanna McIntosh, Stephen Merchant, Jenny Agutter, Jessica Hynes, and the legendary Christopher Lee. So even if Burke and Hare is a story you've heard before, you can at least take pleasure in watching this particular ensemble run through it again. But, as the title clearly suggests, most of the film is the "Pegg & Serkis Show," and together they pull Burke and Hare from its familiar trappings time and again.
Perhaps not a true "return to form" for director John Landis (Edinburgh isn't exactly Hollywood), Burke and Hare is indicative of a "fun time" filmmaker who still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Considering that Mr. Landis' last five features previous to this one were Susan's Plan, Blues Brothers 2000, The Stupids, Beverly Hills Cop 3, and Oscar, I'd call this flick a bona-fide success: a dark-humored but lightly-presented buddy comedy with a great supporting cast and just enough chuckles to keep you amused. The writers and the director get the tone, the pace, and the look right, but most of the accolades should go to the casting directors.