If you wish to go to the current Fangoria site, you may click the top logo, "Home" or "News" links. Or click here.
A little good will and good nature goes a long way. That’s something we’ve seen over the years from director John Landis, who, while not having an overwhelmingly horror-oriented oeuvre, did contribute one of the genre’s absolute classics with AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. And although his dark comedy BURKE AND HARE, about the real-life graverobbers, isn’t exactly a scare flick, it certainly deals with macabre subject matter, and it’s always great to hear Landis’ thoughts. Fango spoke with the director on the occasion of BURKE AND HARE’s New York City Lincoln Center screening next week (see details here).
FANGORIA: The subject—both graverobbing and Burke and Hare themselves—have been tackled in grimmer movies before; where did you find the black comedy in it?
JOHN LANDIS: Well, it’s a pretty grim subject, actually. I was given the script by Barnaby Thompson at Ealing. It was written by Nick Moorcroft and Piers Ashworth, who used the true story of Burke and Hare—which has been made into, I found about 14 movies and I’m sure there are more that have been based on them, the most famous being the Robert Wise/Val Lewton THE BODY SNATCHER with Boris Karloff. And Tod Slaughter made a really kind of wonderful version with a different name that I can’t think of. He changed the names for some reason, but it was pretty much the same thing. There was THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS, and probably the best one I’ve seen is THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, where Burke and Hare are played by Donald Pleasence and I forgot who the other guy was [George Rose], but Peter Cushing played Dr. Knox. It’s a wonderful film—Cinemascope, black and white. The movie itself is not the greatest film but the performances of Burke and Hare are just great, and Cushing is terrific, very cold and ruthless.
Anyway, what I liked about this script was that it had the very perverse idea of taking Burke and Hare, who in real life were terrible, horrible people, true villains, and making them sympathetic and actually romantic heroes. I mean, the movie’s got a sort of perverse standing. It is the story of Burke and Hare, but made as a romantic comedy.
FANG: You must have taken plenty of liberties transitioning the actual events into a romantic comedy…
LANDIS: Not that many liberties, surprisingly. The character played by Isla Fisher, Ginny Hawkins, the love interest for William Burke [Pegg] who motivates some of his activities, is completely fictional. Ironically, though, this is by far the most accurate of all the versions.
FANG: What about accuracy in terms of period detail?
LANDIS: On that, we did a great job! I had a brilliant production designer [Simon Elliott] and costume designer [Deborah Nadoolman]. We went to great lengths to make it accurate to the period. It takes place in Edinburgh in 1828, and that city is kind of difficult to reproduce in that period, because the architecture was so different from London. Interestingly enough, all of the film versions of Burke and Hare that were made before ours were always set Victorian, and the story actually takes place before the Victorian era. It’s really kind of the end of the Regency, so it’s a very different look. Plus, most of the film takes place in the West Port Ghetto in Edinburgh, which no longer exists at all, so we went to a lot of trouble.
Simon had a brilliant idea: Because the architecture is so specific, we actually went and shot in Sterling Castle and Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, but what we did was, we took the courtyards—all these castles have many buildings and courtyards within the walls—and we dressed them as streets because the buildings were accurate, and it was very successful. We also shot in, I believe, five actual locations within Edinburgh that matched. And we shot at many, many National Trust homes in England, many beautiful old places. We only built one set, actually: the interior of the prison. Other than that, it’s pretty much all real locations, dressed.
FANG: Were the prison interiors at Ealing?
LANDIS: Yes, that’s the one thing we shot at Ealing.
FANG: Even though it was minimal, was it exciting shooting there with Ealing’s legacy behind it?
LANDIS: I loved working there. I mean, a studio’s a studio, they’re the same all over the world. What’s wonderful about Ealing is, Michael Balcon made so many wonderful films there, and very distinct films. One of the things they did at Ealing so well is very black comedy. KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS is a very charming film about a serial killer, and THE LADYKILLERS is a delicious movie in which its entire cast literally murders one another by the end. I’M ALL RIGHT, JACK—they made a lot of these really dark comedies. So hopefully, this is in that tradition.
FANG: You’ve assembled a huge cast of immeasurable talent; everyone from Pegg and Serkis to Christopher Lee to a brief role for AMERICAN WEREWOLF’s Jenny Agutter.
LANDIS: Jenny has a very small cameo. There are a lot of people in it; that’s another thing Ealing did. In the old movies, if you look at something like THE LADYKILLERS, the very first person you see is Frankie Howerd, who was a major comedy star in England. I followed that tradition of peppering the film with lots of very well-known British names, most of whom are not well known in the United States [laughs]. We have wonderful people like THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN’s Reece Shearsmith. We have Bill Bailey and Stephen Merchant and Paul Whitehouse, who’s an amazing British comedian, and of course, Chris Lee. I’ve known Chris many, many years, and it’s just an honor whenever I can find something for him to do, he’s so great. He also did a perfect Scottish accent.
The thing about BURKE AND HARE, the one thing I can state unequivocally, is the performances are wonderful. It is so full of great actors and just down the line, I have so many amazing people in it. Tom Wilkinson is Dr. Knox, he’s extraordinary, and [SPACED’s] Jessica Hynes is wonderful as Mrs. Hare. And Ronny Corbett, he’s a legendary comedian in the UK and I cast him in an unusual part, for him. Everybody went, “Huh?” And he’s wonderful. I’m very happy with the level of performances, and the look of the picture is very good. I’m very pleased.
FANG: You’ve also executive-produced SOME GUY WHO KILLS PEOPLE (see item here), which seems to be in a similar vein to BURKE AND HARE.
LANDIS: Well, SOME GUY WHO KILLS PEOPLE could be classified as a horror movie. I think it would be misleading to call BURKE AND HARE a horror movie. There are very grisly things in it dealing with cadavers and dissection and murder, but it’s much more of a historical romantic comedy. What I told everyone was, we have to take Burke and Hare, these two loathsome scum, and make them into Sydney Carton, and when you see the film, you’ll understand. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis do a very difficult thing. There’s no disguising what they’re doing. You see them murder people and you see they’re completely amoral and pretty cold-blooded, but they’re charming and you really like them [laughs]. It’s dark.
FANG: Even though BURKE AND HARE isn’t necessarily horror, you do seem to be interested in the darker side of comedy. What keeps bringing you back to finding humor in grisly situations?
LANDIS: I don’t know that I do. I am a big fan of the genre; as a fanboy, I’m right there with horror and fantasy and science fiction. But when you look at my body of work, I haven’t done that much, and it was very funny when Mick [Garris] asked me to be a Master of Horror. We still have these dinners, and I think it’s a riot that I’m a Master of Horror. I’ve made two horror pictures [AMERICAN WEREWOLF and INNOCENT BLOOD]. What else have I done?
FANG: Not in the sense of horror, but your comedies are often full of black humor.
LANDIS: Give me an example in ¡THREE AMIGOS!, or ANIMAL HOUSE, or BLUES BROTHERS.
FANG: There’s definitely dark comedy in BLUES BROTHERS; it’s very edgy throughout.
LANDIS: OK, I’ll take it! I do try to find the humor in everything. People disagree with me, but my intention on AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON was to make a horror film. I don’t think that’s a comedy. I think it’s very funny and I wanted it to be funny, but it’s not a comedy. It’s definitely not a happy story. I’ve said it before—we meet these two boys in a truckload of sheep and they immediately go to The Slaughtered Lamb. These kids are dead first frame of the picture. My wife once said to me, “You put the ‘B’ in subtle.”
FANG: Are you excited to be a part of Film Comment Selects and have the movie presented at Lincoln Center, which is such a great place to see a picture?
LANDIS: Oh, sure. I had a documentary I made two years ago called MR. WARMTH, and it had a world premiere at the New York Film Festival with the same people, so I’m very happy they’re having me back.
FANG: Do you have any upcoming horror plans?
LANDIS: Sure, if someone gives me the opportunity to, absolutely.
FANG: You don’t see yourself writing one?
LANDIS: I might have to. Because horror falls into exploitation, it’s always easier to get the money for a horror picture than any other kind of picture, especially if you keep the budget low. That’s the way so many filmmakers, from Francis Coppola to everybody—Joe Dante, me—everybody makes low-budget horror pictures first. Those are the pictures you can get financing for. You put a monster in there, and someone will pay to see it.
JOIN OUR COMMUNITY AND BE THE FIRST TO KNOW ABOUT NEWS, CONTESTS, EVENTS AND MORE!
All contents © 2011 Fangoria Entertainment