The story of Burke and Hare, the murderous pair who provided cadavers for the pioneering surgeon Dr Knox in Edinburgh in the 1820s, has been filmed before, notably in The Body Snatcher in 1945, a Val Lewton horror starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
This new version is the first time it has been told as a comedy, and if the presence of John Landis as director is a worry, the track record of writers Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft (St Trinian's 2, Goal! 3) should have you cowering in your seat for all the wrong reasons. Simon Pegg (Burke) and Andy Serkis (Hare) at least provide a sliver of amiability as the infamous Irish labourers who realise that the supply of corpses to Dr Knox (Tom Wilkinson) could be profitably accelerated. The streets of Edinburgh furnish a properly sinister backdrop to this macabre business, but the film-makers haven't a clue how to make it work as comedy. Instead of writing some good jokes they pack out the cast with celebrity cameos – Michael Winner, Christopher Lee, Stephen Merchant – and hope that Ronnie Corbett as the militia captain hot on the murderers' tail will make up the shortfall (ahem) of laughs. It recalls another Scots-based comedy of a few years ago, Plunkett & Macleane, which also lacked any sense of purpose or wit yet kept ploughing on regardless. In the end, Burke turned King's evidence and consigned Hare to the gallows. This film too dies a death, just not quite as abrupt as that one.