Burke & Hare & Jack o’ Lantern Cocktails

September 22, 2011 — It’s John Landis’s first movie in over a decade; it stars Simon Pegg and Andy Serkus; it features cameos by Christopher Lee, Tim Curry, and Ray Harryhausen; it’s about the two most notorious body snatchers in European history; and it takes place in an excellently realized 1800s-era Edinburgh. Burke and Hare is a movie with a lot going for it…yet, unfortunately, somehow I didn’t quite go for it. No worries, though. We fixed that with a great little seasonally relevant cocktail.

The true story of William Burke and William Hare is certainly a fascinating one intrinsically. Two Irishmen in Edinburgh become resurrectionists, stealing bodies from graves to take advantage of the black market corpse trade that a nascent medical field struggling to find legally obtained cadavers facilitates in order to advance its science and educate its students…and because it loves cutting into people.

The two Williams, being enterprising sorts, decide to exchange the dirty work of unearthing caskets for the apparently easier dirty work of just killing people. Going from back-breaking work to neck-breaking work enables them to deliver more and fresher bodies to their client, a Dr. Robert Knox, who was an anatomy teacher with a default neck setting of “look the other way.”

In this manner, Burke and Hare killed some 16 people in the city over the course of a year in the late 1820s. Eventually, they were caught and hanged, but that small detail only gave their lasting infamy a tidy conclusion.

It’s a chilling story, but if you’re going to make it into a comedy movie, you should definitely turn to John Landis, who has schizophrened between horror and comedy throughout his career. He’s responsible for such comedies as Spies Like Us, The Three Amigos, The Blues Brothers, and Animal House, and his horror resume includes Innocent Blood, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and that most blessed of unions of horror and comedy, An American Werewolf in London.

Conversely, if you’re going to lure a successful director out of a 12-year hiatus from making movies, it has to be a pretty solid project. I mean, it took somebody like Jesus to coax Lazarus into answering the door.

However even with all that promise, the movie just kind of dangles at the end of its noose. The writing’s flat, the cast seems variously misused or underused, and nothing is surprising in a movie where everything should be. I guess it’s pretty easy to take great ingredients and grind them down into a tasteless mash.

In a line, the main problem of Burke and Hare is that it isn’t black enough and isn’t comedic enough. That's my impression, anyway. This isn't the type of article where I'm going to try to back those statements up.

But you know what? That’s okay. The cure for a bland movie (not to mention for both a bad one and a great one, as well) is to pair it with a drink. In this case, my wife surprised me with a little cocktail called the Jack o’ Lantern.

It’s only superficially a Fall drink, since it tastes the kind of fruity that politely requests a salt rim…but with the right glass, the right garnish, and the right amount of eye squint, the orange cocktail looks just like a pumpkin.

The ingredients, which, thankfully can’t be grinded down into a tasteless mash, are Hennessy VSOP Cognac and Gran Marnier (we had a gift certificate), along with ginger ale and orange juice. Here’s the full recipe. The pumpkin look comes from the natural color of the drink, the round-bottomed lowball glass that you’re supposed to use, and the garnish, which is a round slice of orange dropped flatwise onto the top of the drink and punctured in the middle by a twist of green lime rind, giving the effect of the top of a pumpkin.

Most awesomely, just two or three of these will make a movie like Burke and Hare the best thing you’ve watched in a long time.

By the way, if you want a better black comedy about a pair of grave robbers, definitely check out the 2008 flick I Sell the Dead starring Larry Fessenden, Dominic Monaghan, Angus Scrimm, and Ron Perlman. True, it has a supernatural slant to it that Burke and Hare can’t take advantage of, but it stays entertaining throughout.

And if you want a great movie ostensibly inspired by the story of Burke and Hare, you’ll want to watch the 1945 Robert Wise film The Body Snatcher, which stars Boris Karloff in the titular role and also features Bela Lugosi. Those guys need to drop in on your Halloween, anyway.

Another cameo is Burke's actual skeleton,
on display at the Museum of the Department of
Anatomy at Edinburgh University.