Simon Pegg stars in film adaptation of Burke and Hare story
Edinburgh-set horror-comedy released this Hallowe’en - Simon Pegg interview
The nation’s favourite grown-up nerd, Simon Pegg, stars in the Edinburgh-set horror-comedy Burke and Hare, released this Hallowe’en. He tells Niki Boyle about the thin line between scary and funny
William Burke and William Hare were two 19th-century serial killers – not grave robbers, as widely believed – who made a living selling off their victims’ bodies to the Edinburgh Medical College. This might not scream ‘comedy’ to the average passer-by, but if there’s one man who can make it funny, it’s John Landis, director of landmark horror-comedy An American Werewolf in London. It also couldn’t harm his chances to have one of the wicked Williams played by Simon Pegg, writer and star of landmark horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead.
‘When we were promoting Shaun, we said that the movie it bore most relation to was American Werewolf,’ says Pegg. ‘John always said that Werewolf was a horror film with funny bits in it, and that’s very much what we were aiming at with Shaun – the horror parts of that, we tried to make really scary.’ Would Burke and Hare also belong to that tradition? ‘No, John would say it’s a comedy – a comedy about murder! It’s certainly not a horror film. Burke and Hare were very careful about how they killed their victims because they needed to deliver them intact – if they turned up with someone whose head had been chopped off, they’d get less money. The only gory bits are actually in the medical facilities.’
A look at the cast list supports the theory that this is more comedy-horror than horror-comedy. ‘Reece Shearsmith from The League of Gentlemen – there’s a great tradition of gothic horror in his comedy. A lot of the people in it are really tied into that culture. Even Ronnie Corbett – I remember being scared of The Phantom Raspberry Blower [a classic ‘Two Ronnies’ sketch] when I was a kid! The Two Ronnies, when they did their horror spoofs, were always very authentic. It is rich in that tradition, with these people in it.’ Tim Curry, most famous for his transgressive (and transsexual) Transylvanian role in Rocky Horror Picture Show, also makes an appearance: ‘Tim’s got one of those faces that’s a winning combination of “butter wouldn’t melt” and “I’m gonna kill you with an axe”.’ Then there’s Hammer Horror legend Christopher Lee. ‘John’s a big cameo fan,’ explains Pegg. ‘There are loads of people in the film that even I don’t recognise – crew members from various other films, and [special effects guru] Ray Harryhausen’s in the movie somewhere – but he also likes to give cameos to other directors and big actors – I think Michael Winner crops up at one point! But he did really want Christopher to play this part, as one of our victims. So he came on, and he’s a huge man, very tall, and has a history stretching back God-knows how long – the first story he told was how Errol Flynn broke his finger! It was extraordinary, and a real gift to work with him.’
Pegg’s glee at getting to work with his heroes is evident – and also something that’s led to him writing a book, Nerd Do Well, to be released in October. ‘The book addresses a lot of bizarre circularities of my life: from what I loved as a child, and how I ended up doing it as a professional adult. There are many parallels, from watching Star Trek as a kid, to being in Star Trek as an adult; from being a Spielberg fan growing up, to actually getting to work with him [on the forthcoming Tintin] – there’s a lot of nice little ironies. It’s just about how I, as a little baby nerd, became a person that other nerds enjoy.’ What with the fanboyish obsession that surrounds a large proportion of Pegg’s work – Spaced, Star Trek and the forthcoming Paul, which is partially-set at the geek Mecca of the San Diego Comic-Con – does Pegg feel somewhat overwhelmed by this sea of nerdy adoration? ‘I think it’s come from me doing a lot of genre work, because I myself love genre work,’ he says. ‘Having done zombies, I did a bit of Dr Who, I did Star Trek, and I’ve just recorded a voice for the new Narnia film, so there’s a whole raft of dedicated fans from that … I think people are more in love with the things themselves, rather than me. It just so happens that a lot of what I’ve done is nerd stuff.’ With Paul, Tintin and a Star Trek sequel on the way, nerds have got a lot to look forward to.
Burke and Hare, general release from Fri 29 Oct.