Take John Landis, Simon Pegg and the true tale of two murderous labourers – and what do you get? ‘Burke and Hare’, the darkest Ealing comedy yet.
On a grey, wet morning in February, the director John Landis is sitting in front of a monitor in the stables of Knole House, Kent, gripping a can of Diet Coke. He’s talking – or rather, shouting – over the opening titles of his new film, Burke & Hare. It’s a retelling of the notorious tale of the eponymous Irish labourers who discovered the profit in supplying cadavers to ambitious anatomists and started murdering people to keep up with demand.
Landis says the film is a romantic comedy. ‘So we fade up to this shot of Edinburgh Castle,’ he begins, ‘although there’ll be lots of smoke and s—, and it says “Edinborough” or whatever, 1828. There’ll be lots of Scottish voices, saying things in Scottish accents. Lots of activity. Lots of arguing.’ A little boy darts across the screen: ‘There’s Oliver Twist making a guest appearance. Continuous action. Appropriate sounds. Directed by me. Cut, and then on we go.’
Landis swivels off his chair and stalks into the courtyard, which, filling in for an Edinburgh marketplace, is brimming with mud, vegetables, cows and glum extras, and is soundtracked with the honking of a flock of caged geese. ‘Why aren’t you following me?’ he shouts. ‘Come with me!’
Landis, whose previous films include The Blues Brothers and Trading Places is effervescent. This is the first feature film he’s made in a decade. But he despises the idea that this is a comeback. ‘I keep reading this thing – “he hasn’t worked in 10 years”. Bulls—, I’ve been working constantly! I guess I haven’t made a big regular movie. And people will say whatever they want and they always do, so who cares?’