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I Sell the Dead Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 27, 2009

    I Sell the Dead Review

    “Never trust a corpse ...”

    Here was a film that I had been looking forward to for quite a while. Glenn McQuaid's full feature-film debut, the horror/comedy I Sell The Dead has already dug itself out of the grave and shuffled onto largely indifferent UK Blu-ray, but now comes the chance to have a butcher's at this Canadian region A-locked release from Anchor Bay. The film, a low-budget, high-hopes gothic splendour about the scrapes that two 19th Century grave-robbers, played by Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden (who also co-produced the film for his mate, Glenn), find themselves in before fate and the law finally catch up with them, literally came and went without any fanfare. Which is a distinct shame. I first heard about the project when advance word about its wacky soundtrack score, from Jeff Grace, piqued my interest, but such were the misfortunes of the movie's distribution that it could well have been buried before it even saw the light of day. Thankfully, home video, like the prying hands of the two miscreants at the dark heart of the story, ransacked its gloomy vault and has given it a new lease of life in spruced-up 1080p.

    And although scruffy round the edges, and a touch sloppy here and there, the film is not half bad and, despite several reviews to the contrary, spins a good yarn and raises a few sinister chuckles along its twisted path to the guillotine. It won't be everyone's cup of tea, for its tone can veer from the farcical to the outright macabre, but there is enough good stuff here to make the prospect of another McQuaid/Fessenden production something to look forward to.

    Written by native Irishman McQuaid who, like many of us ghouls, was weaned on Saturday night horror double-bills that flashed incendiary images and monstrous possibilities inside his skull, I Sell The Dead's plot is regaled by Monaghan's imprisoned Arthur Blake to a strangely rapt monk (Ron Perlman) just after his mentor and business partner, Willie Grimes (Fessenden) has been beheaded. Arthur awaits the same treatment in the morning. The image, lit by candlelight, of Dominic Monaghan sitting across a table in the cell of the damned from Ron Perlman in monastic robes who is visibly relishing all manner of grave-robbing, occult encounters and supernatural shenanigans that the condemned man is recounting for his scribbling quill and evident delectation, is supremely evocative. He tells of his indoctrination into the “business”, and the tricks he quickly learned from the more seasoned Grimes. We hear of the nefarious Dr. Vernon Quint (the fabulous Tall Man, himself, from Phantasm, Angus Scrimm making a wonderful cameo appearance) and his sordid practices for which a regular delivery of fresh meat is all-important. We learn of the rival gang of ghouls, known as the House of Murphy. Ferocious and as mad as they come, this is one clan that you don't want to get on the wrong side of. Even the dead are afraid of them. And then there are the, ahem, odd cases that crop up in the course of their nocturnal toil, the ones that aren't covered by the Grave-robbers' Guild. These are the graves that aren't exactly populated with the ... um ... shall we say conventional corpses. The ones who don't seem to be resting in peace. Thus it transpires that Arthur Blake ends up recounting the tricky nature of dealing with the undead - the vampires and the zombies that fast become an occupational hazard for the hapless duo.

    But no matter how adept they become at wrangling the reluctant dead, circumstances of a fateful nature are conspiring against them. The involvement of a woman - ain't it always the way? - is sure to put the cat amongst the pigeons. Fiery red-head, Fanny Bryer (a gusty Brenda Cooney), is seeking a career-shift from ship-wrecker to stiff-seller and she wants “in” with the boys. But her first job is going to prove a dangerous one, and an opportunity that will be literally make or break for Grimes and Blake.

    I Sell The Dead may be McQuaid's first full-length feature, but it is not his first foray into fantasy film-making. In fact, it is not even his first occasion of dealing with Messrs Grimes and Blake, for he had actually created the characters for a short experimental film, wonderfully entitled The Resurrection Apprentice in 2005, with Larry Fessenden beginning his tenure as Willie Grimes and Brenda Cooney appearing in a different role to the one she would grab by the horns in this fully developed version. But the nice thing is that the earlier attempt to bring the grave-robbing opus to the screen has actually been integrated into this film, albeit a truncated version that now plays as a flashback to the start of the duo's career together. Remarkably, barring a slightly different look, the sequence fits in well with the rest of the movie and, without me, or either of the two commentary tracks telling you, you probably wouldn't be any the wiser of the splicing.

    The influences are readily apparent. Burke and Hare, Terry and Arthur, Father Ted and Dougal, amongst many other ragtag, chancing couplets from across the genres, are all wrapped-up into this ghoulish pair of earth-botherers. Their relationship is a mixed-bag of amiable companionship, like-minded opportunism, devout cowardice and erstwhile dreaming. The genesis of the double-act, as well as its eventual outcome, is all too obvious, but the execution of their banter, charm, wit and innate un-savouriness is pure TV sitcom. And this is no bad thing. Of the two, it is clearly Monaghan's film. Then Lost star and former Hobbit has a wayward guile that makes his odd little face quite magnetic. It is true that even in a film that is already rife with rural accents and mangled, face-gurning vowels from all and sundry (although “Oirish” seems to be the dominant lingo), Monaghan's voice skitters about all over the place. His rustic patois from playing Merry in LOTR cuddles its way out of his mouth, but so, too, does a strange trans-Atlantic drawl that comes from his recent years spent Stateside with JJ Abrams and then Hugh Jackman on Wolverine. Perlman, however, maintains a glorious Irish brogue that sounds almost saintly-sweet dancing out from his lantern-jaw. Monaghan is still too diminutive in personality to carry off full leading-man status, although he is terrifically likeable as the jug-eared scallywag for whom luck, both good and bad, are practically interchangeable commodities.

    Larry Fessenden is no slouch, either. He takes to the role with an amiable grunge and a sly twinkle in his eye. It is tempting to imagine Andy Serkis in the part, but he would probably allow Grimes a harder image than that which the scratty little runt of a coffin-grabber actually warrants. There is a very familiar and almost cosy quality to Fessenden's portrayal. Rough 'n' ready and quick to seize the moment, he is still immediately much less intimidating than a church mouse ... and probably twice as flea-bitten. Perlman is, as always, excellent. The anvil-faced actor must have suffered a shiver or two of deja vu when he donned his monk's cassock and began to wander through the dank, shadow-engulfed gaol location, with memories of his haunting performance as the ill-treated simpleton Salvatore in Jean-Jacques Annaud's medieval whodunnit, The Name Of The Rose swarming back to him. Only drafted-in for three days of filming, he nevertheless looms large over the proceedings, and it is fascinating to watch the animation that that immense face is capable of producing as he ponders the tale that is told to him in the flickering candlelight.

    “Someone's snatched our snatchings!”

    The plot is wilfully disjointed but no less effective for all of its likeable meandering and it is populated with a crazily eclectic bunch of ne'er-do-wells. Hats-off, though, to the creation of the sensationally nasty Murphy brood who, collectively, strike an entertainingly ominous tone. With those enormous mutton-chops, and with some loathsome dog-teeth grafted onto his gums, Alisdair Stewart's thuggish brute, Bulger, almost becomes a werewolf. And Heather Bullock's sensuous vixen, Valentine Kelly, is the dangerously alluring, though hideously disfigured femme fatale of the Murphy Clan, only removing her distinctive face-mask (inspired by George Franju's classic Les yeux sans Visage from 1960) to those she is about to kill. But the most impressive Murphy-fright comes courtesy of head-honcho, Cornelius (John Speredakos), whose eyes are lit so malevolently amid the thick gloom of a midnight-bathed graveyard, that they seem to burn through the screen. Compared to the bumbling duo we have come to know and love, their mystique is black-hearted and skin-prickling.

    McQuaid employs a lot of visual gimmicks, from split-screen dissolves and metaphorical editing to live-action suddenly frozen-fast into a lurid comic-book image, and this reminds a little bit of an impish Tarantino at work, or even an early Guy Ritchie. Indeed, the film is set in some bawdy, early 19th century period, but its slang, verbal sparring and contemporary style is thoroughly removed from any real or authentic historical milieu, much like the “out-of-whack” crime dramas that both Tarantino and Ritchie made their names with. And, to this end, I Sell The Dead is a fable of deed and consequence that just happens to have such a setting draped around it, the theme merely one of comical corruption, amorality, rogue characters meeting even more roguish characters and a series of highly implausible scenarios that career around our two protagonists with ever-wilder unpredictability ... and ever-worsening repercussions. There are tales within tales, McQuaid taking traditional exposition into fresher, more off-kilter realms, and some terrific character introductions that are delivered via verbal hearsay, rumour and graphic imagery. The potential for a much larger, more complex universe is apparent, the screenplay tantalising in its evocation of some weird alternate reality.

    We cross the threshold into fantasy quite early on but the transition is smooth. And whilst it could so easily have become tedious to just watch corpse after corpse being dug up, we are treated to some diverse locations and one or two very unexpected unearthings. There is even a little hint of Repo Man at one stage. Shot in New York City, a lot of it upon Staten Island, itself, and then up on Long Island, the film looks amazing ... for its rather obvious shoestring budget. There are some wonderful, very fantastical-looking country lanes that are profuse with foliage, canopied with trailing mist and shadows, and decorated with some gloriously gothic old street-lamps that, somehow, bring a touch of Middle Earth's quaintly sinister Bree to the quasi Victorian netherworld that the story inhabits. We may have the mighty Perlman sans that demonic red skin and shorn of his ground-down horns, but there is definitely an element of the Hellboy comic-books at play here. Not only in the fairytale glens, spectral graveyards and mischievous Oirish enclaves of dreaded islets, but in the tone of almost “anything goes”. Our boys' local tavern, The Fortune Of War, is a typically ale-sozzled den of inequity, where deals are done, plots are hatched and drinking games can lead to carve-ups with cadavers. The simply huge innkeeper, Ronnie (Joel Garland), lends a marvellous sweat 'n' beer authenticity with his bloated form and pink visage and the scenes in the ale-house have an infectious sense of real conviviality. I'm always infatuated by insane creativity on a low-budget, and McQuaid's excellent use of genre-staples and fan-boy riffs almost effortlessly won me over. Somewhere in here are the seeds of a blacker-than-black series of misadventures, the film neatly assuming the very guise of an episodic extravagance, and falling covertly into the limbo-land between Supernatural and Pushing Up Daisies, but with a lot more swearing.

    “I looked into its eyes and all I saw was me own mouth screaming back at me!!!”

    And, as I mentioned earlier, it gets that great little score from Jeff Grace, too. Full-blooded, left-field and often knowingly manic, the music perfectly accompanies the tongue-in-cheek antics. The opening titles - which house the main theme for our two dubious heroes - are deliberately reminiscent of Stuart Gordon's seminal Re-Animator (which, in turn, was centred around a riff on Bernard Herrmann's classic Psycho score), but McQuaid adds the animated anatomical dissection that Gordon made so eminently cool with his own lurid title sequence. Grace's score is very hugely humorous, but it wraps the film up in a deliciously dark and playful blanket, switching on the horror when called for but always twisting insidiously around the increasingly more bizarre incidents like a mischievous court jester.

    McQuaid uses the world of the undead to visual ends, but his adherence to CG, animatronic or just plain prosthetic FX is minimal. This isn't to say that his zombies and vampires aren't effective, because they are. The vampire encounter has some terrific whirligig activity that produces some agreeably kinetic ferocity, and the zombie attacks - which take place, refreshingly, on a beach and in broad, although mist-filtered, daylight - are reliably physical and flesh-rending. McQuaid makes sure that he stamps his own brand on his monsters, too. I love the way that the main zombie (played by Mark Godwin in one of three different roles he has in the film) attains a genuine level of character, and even some audience empathy, when Valentine Kelly removes her death-mask and even he recoils in abject terror, right alongside a shackled Grimes and Blake. And listen out for his snarled hiss of “Dar-liiiinnng!” as he tries to put the bite on one of his tomb-liberators.

    The mist-enshrouded approach to Langel's Island is so obviously three cast members just sitting in a pond and rowing absolutely nowhere, but the effect, on-screen, is justifiably moody and heavy with dread, although McQuaid cannot resist the long, Skull Island approach-style shot that places the unwise travellers at the forefront of a vast CG rolling sea, with the mysterious rocky outcropping looming up an almost impossible distance away. He manages to make his threadbare sets and locations seem much bigger, more populated and even more real than they should be. CG city rooftops reaching up behind the physical locations, embraced with that perennial mist, look surprisingly good. We aren't talking the all-round, three-dimensional aspect of the Olde London streets of Tim Burton's Sweeny Todd, but these little spires, rises and shadow-mired dwelling-places that provide unsettling backdrops for the tavern and the little trails are much more subtle and well-integrated than any of the overly-stretched landscapes or buildings seen in Stephen Sommers' flaccid yawnathon, Van Helsing. McQuaid's background in visual effects (The Roost, Trigger Man) means that the movie always has an interesting, well composed appearance and he certainly evidences the ability to make even the simplest of set-ups look enchanting. For instance, there is a shot from The Resurrection Apprentice sequence of Grimes and the young Arthur Blake (played by Daniel Manche) in the middle ground, far left of the image, with a CG-blended statue in the immediate right. The influence of Sam Raimi also appears with the comical, yet aggressive attacks of the undead. Whether vampire-babe or ravenous zombie, the set-pieces tend to include a monster's speeding POV shot of the intended victim, and their terrified facial contortions. For a film as small as this, these little embellishments are tremendous ambient decorations that add a lot to the mood. A patently CG knife thudding into a skull sticks out like a sore thumb, though. Still, this sort of thing shows a real eye for scope and grandeur and opens up the movie quite considerably.

    To be honest, folks, out of all the films that I've seen this past week - and there's been a few - it was this that I felt the urge to re-watch the most. You can't beat that low-level, but farsighted approach of ambitious new filmmakers who are, first and foremost, knowledgeable fans of the genre they are working in. When someone writes, directs and edits a movie and maintains such an obvious camaraderie that it even manages to bleed from the screen, it is a rare delight. I Sell The Dead has a few indie and festival awards to its name and the sure-fire makings of a cult item provided, of course, that you accept its simple and leering virtues.

    I enjoyed it immensely and would love to see more of Grimes and Blake plying their ghastly trade. Like Sam Raimi expanded a low-key student short called Into The Woods into The Evil Dead, and then practically re-made it all over again as Evil Dead II, I can see this grave-robbing odyssey getting tweaked and fine-tuned and transformed from what, here, feels vaguely incomplete, into something appropriately richer and more satisfying.