Thursday, 10 December 2009

I Sell the Dead

2008
Dir. Glenn McQuaid

The night before he is due to face the guillotine, young grave robber Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) confides in Father Duffy (Ron Perlman), recounting his years of misadventures in the ‘resurrection’ trade. Beginning as a young boy stealing trinkets from corpses, Blake eventually became involved with seasoned ghoul Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) and the dastardly duo set about making a living by selling the dead. And as it turns out, sometimes the not-so-dead…

Dublin born Glenn McQuaid’s directorial feature debut, a wonderfully evocative and atmospheric period horror-comedy, follows on from and expands upon his short film The Resurrection Apprentice, which charted a young boy’s entry into the murky but oh so lucrative world of grave robbing. The same boy, Arthur Blake, is now grown up and has been imprisoned for his dubious career choice. The film opens with Blake’s former partner in crime Willie Grimes being executed with the guillotine as Blake waits for the same fate. The majority of the film is told through flashbacks constructed around the framing narrative featuring Monaghan and Perlman in a jail cell as the former recounts his adult life as a body snatcher, eventually revealing to the curious priest that it was far more more lucrative to dig up vampires, monsters and other undead creatures of the night and sell them to mad scientists like the sinister Dr. Quint (Angus Scrimm), than just plain old regular dead corpses.

 
I Sell the Dead has a real comic book feel to it and at various times throughout, certain shots are held for a few moments and dissolve to comic style stills, highlighting the off-kilter, quirky nature of the film. The film is played for laughs much of the time, although its obvious McQuaid still has a penchant for creating creepy imagery and is fairly astute when it comes to conjuring up genuinely nightmarish moments. The film unfolds as a sentimental throwback to the fog-shrouded gothic ambience of old Hammer horror films, Amicus films and the atmospheric work of Val Lewton. The gloomy, eerily lit studio bound sets create a real feeling of nostalgia as well as being refreshingly effective in their own right. The film references the likes of The Body Snatcher, Brides of Dracula and Eyes Without a Face to name but a few. Apparently McQuaid was particularly influenced by Freddie Francis’s Paranoiac, and this is especially evident in his expertly crafted framing and exquisite shot composition.


McQuaid’s fondness for these devious but likeable rapscallions is obvious, and quite infectious. Monaghan and Fessenden have a wonderful onscreen rapport and flesh out their characters effortlessly, portraying them as strangely loveable rogues. As well as indulging in heinous crimes against the dead, they are also a witty, warm and entertaining pair who we can’t help but care about. They form the most appealing horror-comedy duo since Shaun and Ed (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) graced our screens in 2004. As the film progresses their misadventures become increasingly absurd and irreverent. It’s a treat to wait with baited breath every time they visit a cemetery to dig up graves, just to see what horror they unearth next. Vampires, zombies, unnameable creatures and things that are definitely not of this world are the order of the day, and with every coffin lid prized open, comes a gasp of delight and horror from those onscreen, and indeed, those off screen too. Even though these undead ‘things’ are quite cartoonish, a few of them are still pretty gruesome. Blake and Grimes also have a few run-ins with a rival grave-robbing gang, the ghastly House of Murphy, whose evil members include a man with razor sharp dog teeth and a woman whose masked face is so hideous it chills even the dead to the core. A climatic confrontation with this motley crew on a strange island inhabited by the dead serves up a few effective twists and turns and some of the film’s most memorable visuals.


Testament to the conviction and talent of McQuaid is the fact that, although set in 18th Century Ireland, the low budget film was actually shot in New York. However, because of neat camera work, graphic effects, clever utilisation of existing locations and various backgrounds added in during post production, the result is a film that retains a seamless and distinct visual aesthetic. The Elfman-esque score courtesy of Jeff Grace, enhances the spooky atmosphere, adding a distinct cartoonish fairground feel to proceedings and at times actually helps sustain a genuinely dark and foreboding mood that vaguely recalls Wojciech Kilar’s score for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

An atmospheric, darkly charming and irascibly funny horror comedy.

2 comments:

Carl (ILHM) said...

Im so glad you hit this one James, I have been looking forward to it for months!! Cant wait to get my hands on a copy, thanks for the review!

James said...

My pleasure Carl. Its a really fun and atmospheric little film - I suspect you may 'dig' it!