Rarely has the ratio of quality talent to dismal returns been as high as in “Burke & Hare,’’ a macabre British period piece that’s nowhere near as funny as it thinks. A horror-comedy based on a notorious pair of body-snatcher murderers in 1820s Edinburgh, the film is director John Landis’s first dramatic feature in about a dozen years, and while it returns him to the British Isles, setting of 1981’s “An American Werewolf in London,’’ it’s hardly a return to form.
If anything, “Burke & Hare’’ is a slaphappy mess that recalls Landis’s earliest work on 1970s midnight movies like “Schlock’’ and “The Kentucky Fried Movie.’’ Only the budget and cast have been upgraded. Simon Pegg (“Shaun of the Dead,’’ “Paul’’) plays the naive William Burke while the role of the more conniving William Hare allows the gifted Andy Serkis to appear in the flesh rather than behind the digitized skin of Gollum, King Kong, or Caesar from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.’’
The two reprobates latch onto a gold mine when they meet Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson), an eminent surgeon locked in a fierce rivalry with Dr. Alexander Monro (Tim Curry) for the attentions of the medical community and the King. Specifically, Knox needs bodies to dissect for his lectures, and Burke and Hare are happy to provide. When they run out of conveniently ill boarders, they start slaughtering the good folk of Edinburgh.
True story, and there’s more than a touch of “Sweeney Todd’’ to the merrily grim proceedings. But for every touch of genuine wit - Knox takes a look at a corpse folded in half with rigor mortis and drily commends Burke and Hare “on account of its freshness’’ - there are five slapstick groaners like a runaway barrel with a body inside. The script by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft is one long haul of forced gags, DOA dialogue (Burke: “Have ye gone mad?’’ Hare: “No, Willy, we’ve gone into business’’) and nonsensical plot tangents. What’s Isla Fisher doing here as a pub tart aching to stage an all-female version of “Macbeth’’? Beats me, although Jessica Hynes gets some dark laughs as Hare’s profit-minded common-law wife, the movie’s equivalent of Mrs. Lovett.
The film’s well researched, with cameo appearances by Dr. Joseph Lister (“Your breath is appalling,’’ quips Curry’s Monro), Charles Darwin, and William Wordsworth (cruising a 19th-century nightclub with Samuel Coleridge). And, yes, that dog in the cemetery is the storied Greyfriars Bobby, albeit about four decades ahead of schedule. But all the historical footnotes and enthusiastic pop-up appearances by actors Christopher Lee and Jenny Agutter, director Costa-Gavras, and special-effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen can’t make up for the nearly complete void of comic inspiration at the center. “Burke & Hare’’ is one of those movies that looks like it was a lot more fun to make than it is to watch.