The veteran US director’s comeback picture is a black comedy.
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11 May 2011 - 1:32 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

John Landis laughs down the telephone line from his home in Beverly Hills when asked about the UK critics who pilloried Burke and Hare, his first feature in more than 10 years.

“I've been doing this so long I just take the long view,” said the director who broke through with National Lampoon's Animal House in 1978 and followed that with The Blues Brothers, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos! and Coming to America.

“In the US critics have always hated my stuff. The only movie I made that got good reviews was Trading Places. You know the famous quote from John Huston? John said that motion picture directors, prostitutes and buildings grow respectable with age.

“I just turned 60. What I see is that the same critics who shit on all my movies now refer to these films as classics and hold them up as examples. If I'd known this I would have turned 60 earlier.”

Based on the true story of two Irish immigrants who killed 17 people and sold the cadavers in 18th Century Edinburgh, Burke and Hare stars Simon Pegg as William Burke and Andy Serkis as William Hare.

“The challenge of the movie was to make a romantic comedy about two loathsome guys,” he said. “My challenge was to make them sympathetic and have you like them. The movie doesn't sugarcoat anything: you see what they are doing and there are no excuses. These guys are the evil Laurel and Hardy.”

By Landis' count, the Burke and Hare story had been chronicled in at least 14 movies, most famously in Robert Wise's The Body Snatcher and also in The Doctor and the Devils scripted by Dylan Thomas, and they're all horror films. He claims his rendition, scripted by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft, is the most accurate.

It gave the director the chance to work again with David Schofield, Jenny Agutter and John Woodvine, who appeared in 1981's American Werewolf in London, and with Tim Curry.
As a longtime fan of TV's The Two Ronnies, Landis was delighted to cast Ronnie Corbett as Captain McLintock, who pursues the killers. “I was shocked to learn that he'd never had such a big part in a movie before,” he said.

He also asked longtime friends Christopher Lee, Costa-Gavras and 90-year-old special effects guru Ray Harryhausen to play cameos. The gangly Stephen Merchant makes the most of his small role as one of the King's footmen and might make audiences wish he'd been given more scope to show his talent. “That's the kind of part you want,” said Landis. “I remember when I made Animal House I saw that John Belushi was so extraordinary in what he could convey with his character. In the script he went on the road trip and he had much more dialogue and I told him I'm taking his lines away. He was really upset but I said 'Listen, when you see the movie you'll thank me.'”

When Burke and Hare opened in the UK in October 2010, it was branded “an out-and-out misfire” by The Telegraph, “a damp squib of a comeback” by NME and “a sad disappointment” by The Observer. Empire mag was more positive, opining, “Against all the odds, it's surprisingly educational about a blood-spattered page in medical history even if it whitewashes the truly despicable title duo.” Landis claims the film made money although it grossed just £2.3 million ($A3.5 million) in its first four weeks, according to IMDB.com.

Since then the picture produced by Ealing Studios has screened in a handful of territories including Germany (where Landis says “it did great”) and Italy (“it got rapturous reviews but didn't do as well as they expected, but nothing else did either during a bad couple of weeks at the box-office”), and it's due to open in France in July.

Although no US distribution deal has been announced, Landis said the film will get a limited release there, similar to an art-house movie due to the absence of star names and the Scottish and Irish accents.

One of the reasons he went on a long sabbatical from making movies was his unhappiness with the way Universal recut and changed his 1998 comedy Blues Brothers 2000. “It was my first experience with the new corporate movie business and I said 'fuck this' and I walked away.”

In the intervening years he's been busy shooting feature-length docus such as Mr. Warmth:
The Don Rickles Project
and Slasher, plus episodes of TV series Psych and Fear Itself and commercials.

“It's not like I don't want to make movies,” he said. “This movie came about because I was visiting a friend at Ealing, was given the script and I liked it. Usually I'm given scripts and I hate them.”

His next offering will be a book he's written entitled Monsters in the Movies: 100 Years of Movie Nightmares. Published by Dorling Kindersley and due out in October, the tome will be packed with more than 1,000 photographs and cover multiple genres including horror, fantasy and science-fiction.

The publisher initially invited him to write a book about his favourite films, and after he declined, suggested he nominate his 10 greatest horror films, which he also vetoed because he dislikes lists. He sparked to the monsters concept when approached by representatives of the film photo archive The Kobal Collection. “They offered me so much money I went, 'really?' Now I'm almost finished and I'm enthusiastic.”

As for more John Landis movies, he observed, “There's a number of things I want to do. Whether or not we can get the money is another issue.

“What I remember as Hollywood isn't there any more. There is no American movie industry. It's the international film business based in L.A. Every single studio is now a small sub-division of a huge multinational. There are no villains to point at: it's just that it's now corporate in a way it never was.

“When I made movies in the '70s and '80s I could tell you who was running the company and who owned it. Now it's very different. A movie has to open in Beijing, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Barcelona and Melbourne, Australia at the same time. You're seeing all these comic book movies and franchises and sequels and remakes because they are pre-sold. It's about marketing now more than anything else.”