When Judge Gordon Sullivan was a grave robber; he ran a rental service.
Never Trust A Corpse
Some things are only missed once their gone. Watching I Sell the Dead made me realize just how little of the macabre we have in contemporary culture. We've got "scary" movies that rely on atmosphere, but it just doesn't feel the same. We've also got boatloads of gore, but that isn't quite it either. The difference is hard to pin down, but I think there's a general lack of formality in contemporary cinema, and therefore the macabre has disappeared too. I Sell the Dead also made me realize just how few anthology films and television shows there are these days. Sure, they're still around, but they seem much rarer than in years past. That really gets at the heart of I Sell the Dead, which hearkens back both to the old days of the portmanteau flick in structure, to the nineteenth century (or the nineteenth century as filtered through Hammer Films) in its subject and atmosphere, and to the Eighties horror-comedy (like Evil Dead II) in its execution. It aims to be a crowd-pleasing scare-fest and only just falls short of its classic predecessors.
Facts of the Case
As the film opens, grave robber Willy Grimes (Larry Fessenden, Habit) is being led off to the gallows for his crimes. Up next on the chopping block is his partner in crime, Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan, Lost), but before the guillotine comes down, he gets a final interview with Father Duffy (Ron Perlman, Hellboy) who wants to know the particulars of the pair's grave-robbing past. What follows is the duo's history in the business and all the not-quite-dead encounters they had over the years before finally being put away.
It seems lately that horror fans have been inundated with two kinds of fright flicks: those that aim high and miss, and those that aim low and deliver. The first can be frustrating in their might have beens (like The Wolfman), while the latter are only good for Friday night popcorn flicks (like Saw 57 and all the recent remakes/reboots of older slasher tales). Every once in a while we get a film that aims just a bit higher and completely nails it. I Sell the Dead is one of those films. It doesn't try to reinvent the horror genre or really do anything too new, but it also avoids simply retreading the same old cliché horror elements that have come before it.
The film largely succeeds on acting and atmosphere. Between Dominic Monaghan, Larry Fessenden, Ron Perlman, and Angus Scrimm, there's no shortage of talented people on the screen. The primary pair is Monaghan and Fessenden, and the two have a natural chemistry as grave-robbing gentlemen faced not only with the rigors of their profession, but eventually with the problems created by catering to clients who desire the undead. These are breezy, slightly arch performances that seem knowing with actually breaking the fourth wall to let the audience in on the joke. To bolster this pair we've got the aforementioned Angus Scrimm cameo as a mad doctor, and Ron Perlman as a priest is a pretty funny idea before he even gets screen time. The rest of the cast do an admirable job.
The atmosphere of the film is well-crafted by first-time director Glenn McQuaid. I was amazed to discover that the film, which gives the appearance of nineteenth century England, was shot in and around New York City on a tiny budget. It just goes to show what good costumes and lots of fog can get a director. The film gets a bit cheeky (perhaps too cheeky for some) when McQuaid uses comic-book style animated sequences to bridge moments in the film. I think he did an excellent job keeping the film from feeling like a stodgy period reproduction, even if they were jarring occasionally.
I Sell the Dead also succeeds as a DVD package. The film's low budget doesn't keep it from looking solid in this anamorphic transfer, where even the foggiest scenes of darkness are free from serious compression artifacts. The audio does an excellent job of keeping the sometimes-thick accents audible, and the film's score helps reinforce the narrative's sometimes whimsical feeling. The extras are just extensive enough to keep fans happy, starting with two audio commentaries. The first is with Monaghan and Fessenden. The pair are obviously friendly and have a comical discussion about their experiences with the film. The second track is from director McQuaid. He spends more time discussing the technical aspects of the film's low-budget production. Please note: both of these tracks contain spoilers for Lost. They aren't detailed or anything, but those looking to experience the show with no foreknowledge of what may or may not happen to Dominic Monaghan's character should not listen to these. Two featurettes give us a look at the film's production and CGI effects, and this release includes a small comic book tie-in for the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I Sell the Dead is obviously influenced by those old anthology films. The problem, though, is that I Sell the Dead itself isn't a particularly effective anthology of stories about grave robbers. The flashbacks are a bit hit and miss, and I for one feel like the story would have been much stronger if we'd spent less time on the flashbacks and given the present predicament (i.e., waiting for the guillotine) a bit more time. A stronger villain would also have helped the film. As it is, this flick feels lighter than it should—like the filmmakers intentionally expanded the backstory for this film so that the eventual sequel wouldn't have to mess with it. So the film is a mixed blessing: it doesn't always work on its own, but it's good enough to make me want a sequel.
I don't know how a low-budget horror-comedy about nineteenth century grave robbers got off the ground, but dang if I Sell the Dead didn't manage to do it. The film doesn't quite rise to the challenge of equaling its inspirations, but fans of old-school horror-comedies and anthology films will find something to love in this charming, period crowd-pleaser.
They may rob graves, but I Sell the Dead is not guilty.
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