In a 19th century Irish prison, a priest (Ron Perlman) sits down with a man in the final hours until his execution by dawn. The condemned man, Arthur (Dominic Monaghan), is asked to tell of his criminal history as a lasting record before his imminent death before the gallows. Arthur speaks of a life as a grave robbing ghoul with his cohort and mentor in the trade, Willie (Larry Fessenden). Told in flashback, Arthur and Willie grow weary of supplying an endless stream of corpses for their ghoulish employer Dr. Quint (Angus Scrimm), and eventually find a more bankable target than the lifeless husks of the deceased–the undead. Soon the grimly pair find a rival group of by-night shovelers led by Cornelius Murphy (John Speredakos) and take aim to heist a major flesheating score away from their deadly competitors.
At a certain point in Director/Writer/Editor Glenn McQuaid’s debut feature, I Sell the Dead, one is reminded of a small snippet in James Whale’s masterpiece, Bride of Frankenstein (1935). After assisting the diabolical Dr. Pretorius exhume and prep the Bride’s corpse with tools slung over his shoulder, Dwight Frye’s Karl sneers to his partner, “…if there’s much more like this, we give ourselves up and let ’em hang us, this is no life for a murderer!” That tiny exchange is exactly what McQuaid’s pleasantly innocuous horror comedy embodies as we follow the follies of Arthur Blake and Willie Grimes. This 21st century production both serves as a highly enjoyable ode to the golden age of monochromatic horror cinema and neat fill-in for the spooky mythos of monsters it bows before.
This homage is dyed into the fabric of I Sell the Dead‘s style, flow, and even down to its presentation of the creatures of the night. McQuaid never dwells for a second to explain the presence of the ethereal beasties. Much like Universal Studio’s classics or to the pub’s townsfolk in An American Werewolf in London, the monsters are mostly a fact of life and played for the mere spectacle of their existence. When marbled with humor this aspect becomes the film’s strongest point as Monaghan and Fessenden’s frequently hilarious banter circles around just what the hell they’ve gotten themselves into. Or just what the hell this newfangled “sandwich” invention is.
Despite being a veteran of high profile projects such as Lost and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings saga, Monaghan is more-or-less just serviceable as Arthur Blake. The multi-talented Fessenden is actually the one to watch in arguably his best acting performance thus far. The smarmy Willie Grimes is wonderfully brought to life with the same twitchy mannerisms of Andy Serkis’s quirky characterizations as Fessenden gracefully carries most of the feature’s load. The woefully underappreciated (besides being The Tall Man) Angus Scrimm and sketchy-accented Ron Perlman don’t particularly do much and here’s where I Sell the Dead‘s biggest sticking point becomes apparent.
The film snaps neatly in a growing trend on kitschy horror indies with a peppering of insider personalities that almost seem to demand instant cult status. Instead of growing out of hindsight, I Sell the Dead‘s marketing winks at its potential niche popularity as a way of drawing in those interested. That simply feels wrong and cheapens the experience of stumbling upon this gem. Another aspect critics point to is McQuaid’s story having simple aims due to budgetary constraints. This is is true, everything is mostly weightless, but it’s purely cynical to bust on such a treat. The premise of a grave-robbing team bumbling around in an underworld of shambolic dead, ravenous vamps, and creatures out-of-this-world is so damn ripe that the potential here is obvious. Just look no further than the wildly popular Italian comic Dylan Dog. A solid follow-up should only elevate this film’s standing as an earnest piece of original genre filmmaking.
Glenn McQuaid’s I Sell the Dead comes highly recommended despite some initial reservations. After watching the film three times, I still feel a strong urge to pop it in again. With its love for classic horror and pokes at a few modern greats like Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) and Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), this peculiar yarn needn’t require a forced following to earn a place amongst the likes of other great horror comedies as I raise a pint for the prospects of The Further Adventures Of Grimes And Blake.