[8 August 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Gallows humor, with its dark and often subversive nature, remains a hard sell in modern cinema. Not only does it take a certain droll oddball proclivity to truly appreciate, but the subject matter involved can often be an equally hard sell. That’s why we critics end up seeing so many hapless horror comedies. Filmmakers, convinced that macabre and merriment go hand in hand, try to balance out fear and funny business. Few succeed.
Now imagine Sam Raimi circa Army of Darkness taking on a delirious version of a Merchant/Ivory period piece, complete with cockney criminals, corrupt priests, and enough crown Victorian flavor to turn a standard motion picture meal into steak and eel pie. That’s the beauty (and the bedevilment) of writer/director Glenn McQuaid’s goofy I Sell the Dead. Part slapstick shocker, part uneven horror romp, this tale of a grave-robber’s apprentice and his frequently supernatural travails offers some intriguing ideas. They don’t always work, but when they do, the film finds a groovy, ghoulish eccentricity.
Just hours before his execution, accused fiend Arthur Blake is visited by a kindly priest. The purpose? To record this notorious criminal’s last thoughts before the guillotine. Along with former colleague (and already disposed of) grave robber Willie Grimes, Arthur is indeed guilty of several gruesome acts. As he discusses his introduction into the body part trade (and his work for the horrific hack medico Dr. Quint) we learn very quickly of blackmail, mortuaries, missed opportunities, and a band of equally terrifying rivals known as the Murphy Clan. Made up of cutthroats, killers, and one demonically domineering father, Willie and Arthur soon find themselves battling the heinous forces of this determined family - as well as the occasional zombie. Indeed, as their business turns from the recently deceased to the “undead”, our duo discovers how profitable, and problematic, a career as a body snatcher can be.
There are times when you just want I Sell the Dead to settle down. This is perhaps the most “inertly hyperactive” movie ever made. Such a contradictory statement needs a bit of an explanation. McQuaid is clearly a fright film fan. He’s got the references and implied homages down pat. But he’s also like the 13 year old scary movie buff who is full to bursting with his own opinions and ideas about cinema - and you can see that scattered, ADD like attention span right up there on the screen. Instead of letting moments play out organically, building tension and laughs from within some exceedingly sinister material, he gets the basics down and then jumps right to the next set-up. This works during the initial scenes when Arthur explains his beginnings. But once we get to the more “monster” oriented material, the approach does some damage.
Take Arthur and Willie’s run-in with a vampire. She’s fetching. She’s voluptuous. She’s a corpse. Everything is set for a ripe bit of Hammer-era bodice ripping. Instead, the aforementioned maker of The Evil Dead is channeled, the bloodsucker appearing and disappearing in a series of silly Loony Tunes like false shocks. Indeed, the Murphys with their various superhero/graphic novel style backstorys are far more terrifying than any creature we see here. But at least McQuaid is borrowing from the best. The Raimi touches are everywhere, from weapon POVs to sly bits of Abbot and Costello like humor. As always, casting is crucial to making this work, and filmmaker Larry Fessenden and eternally Lost hobbit Dominic Monaghan are fine as the intrepid tomb raiders. Their personalities don’t dive below the fundamentals - cowardly/cautious - but they have their own brand of onscreen charisma to help them along.
Sadly, McQuaid utilizes several other quality cult stars in underwritten or little seen turns. Phantasm‘s Tall Man, Angus Scrimm himself, has a blink and you’ll miss it turn as the evil doctor demanding corpses from our heroes, and Ron Pearlman channels his Name of the Rose past playing the cockiest clergyman in the history of the Holy Sea. Yet both men feel like fanboy additions, ways for McQuaid to make good with nerd nation and the majority of movie fans who will read about this movie and want to check it out. The rest of the cast is competent, but clearly molded out of journeyman level of career. As for the main man himself, McQuaid has an interesting filmic frame of reference. Inspired by EC Comics, Stephen King, Charles Band and almost the entire ‘80 direct-to-video catalog, this Irish maverick wants to be both rebel and realist. I Sell the Dead does have a subtle satiric edge. When it goes a bit bonkers, however, things get way out of hand rather quickly.
Indeed, for its short running time and rapid fire vignette like approach, this is a movie that can feel a bit bogged down at times. While McQuaid keeps up the atmosphere and the kitschy CG backdrop dynamics, his narrative occasionally lets him down. Once we see that things are going from gruesome to Ghostbusters, the gimmick gets in the way. Certainly I Sell the Dead is never dull or disposable, offering every bit of its low budget invention up on the screen for everyone to see, and it’s clear that McQuaid, properly funded and flush with available talent, could turn in something really super. As it stands, this delightful bit of gallows humor has its high points. It also suffers from occasional stumbles. Still, in a genre that sees more misfires than masterworks, I Sell the Dead is an excellent minor example of the latter. While it could have possibly been better, fans know it could be a whole helluva lot worse.