CAPSULE: In the 19th Century in the British Isles a grave-robber tells his story in the last hours before he is guillotined. Superficially this film looks like a reprise of the sort of horror film made in Britain in the 1960s by Hammer and their imitators. As such it is a lot of fun, but rather than a single good story, it is broken into short episodic pieces. Glenn McQuaid writes and directs (and edits!). Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
One of the staple elements of the Gothic horror films of the 1960s was the professional grave robber (or "resurrectionist" or "body snatcher"). The most notorious grave robbers were William Burke and William Hare who plied their trade in Edinburgh in 1827-28. They turned to murder when the supply from the local graveyards could not meet the demand from the local medical school. Burke and Hare inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Body Snatcher" and Dylan Thomas's "The Doctor and the Devils", both adapted into films. But the 19th century setting for horror stories almost seems to be a thing of the past. That made I SELL THE DEAD with its body snatchers particularly nostalgic and welcome. The score under the opening credits is gleefully macabre with the right touch of dark humor. An opening reminiscent of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN follows it with one body snatcher, Arthur Blake (played by Dominic Monaghan) ready to be taken to a guillotine to pay for grievous crimes committed in partnership with Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden). Also as in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN he is confessing his sordid story to a priest. However, unlike how a Hammer film would do the film, it is not one coherent story but three or four short stories almost unconnected. The stories end with the film frame fading into a nearly identical panel of comic book art, more or less as was done in the CREEPSHOW films.
Little Arthur Blake agrees reluctantly to do work for Willie Grimes. He does not know what the work is but is not very shocked when he finds out it is stealing the bodies of the dead. A job is a job to young Arthur Blake. But the thing is that Blake has a talent for this line of work, stealing a body from right under the weeping eyes of the deceased's relatives. Blake and Grimes begin a partnership that continues for years.
The real heroes of I SELL THE DEAD are art director Beck Underwood and set decorator Devin Febbroriello who take a leaf from Hammer Films' book and make what is probably a tiny budget look like a much fancier one. A little in the look is made to seem like a lot more. For surprisingly long this film seems to be doing everything right, pitting the boys against a gamut of supernatural horrors. In the second half, however, the film jumps the shark by putting a decidedly late-20th century visual joke in as the punch line of a story. That one joke seriously damages the atmosphere and it does not get better when the story takes a turn for "Pirates of the Caribbean" territory.
Larry Fessenden who plays Grimes as well as co-producing the film should have a better feel for the mood. Fessenden has a deft hand for disturbing horror as he proved in writing and directing WENDIGO and THE LAST WINTER, two very effective horror films. Dominic Monaghan is probably best known as Brandybuck in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. But stealing the show from him at every opportunity in the confession scenes is Ron Perlman making the most of a role that could have otherwise gone unnoticed, that of Father Duffy, the priest hearing the confession. To drag attention to himself Perlman really chews the scenery in a role that really requires him to do little more than sagely nodding.
In the end, I SELL THE DEAD is just a collection of comic book stories with continuing characters rather than the horror opus it could have been. Rather than a serious attempt to resurrect the Gothic horror of the 1960s it is more just a reverential nod or even a send-up. It is not a bad film, but it is one that failed to meet its potential or fulfill its promise. But to rate it for what it is, a fun film, rather than the horror film it could have been, I rate it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0902290/
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Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper