“I Sell the Dead” marks the debut outing for writer director Glenn McQuaid, and boasts a great offbeat cast, including Dominic Monaghan of “Lord of the Rings” fame, cult director Larry Fessenden (“Habit”, “The Last Winter”), Angus Schrimm (“Phantasm”) and “Hellboy” himself, Ron Perlman. Although the term label ‘comedy horror’ is quite possibly enough to terrify most genre fans in the worst way, the film is one of the very few examples of the form to strike the tricky balance between laughs and scares, mainly since McQuaid puts a great deal of effort into lovingly recreating the atmosphere of the old Hammer Horror classics, tinged with modern touches. The results are highly entertaining, and the film has rightly been a hit at various events during a successful tour, winning Best Independent Feature at Toronto’s After Dark Film Festival. It now arrives on region 2 DVD via Anchor Bay, complete with commentary from McQaid, Monaghan and Fessenden, plus a short making of documentary, and special effects featurettes.
Set back in the 19th century and inspired by the deeds of the infamous Burke and Hare, the film begins with grave robber and alleged murderer Willie Grimes (Fessenden) being beheaded for his foul crimes. Meanwhile, his younger associate Arthur Blake (Monaghan) is visited in his cell by one Father Duffy (Perlman), who begs him to tell his story before meeting his fate, quite rightly suspecting that there is far more to it than the official version of events. His tongue loosened by the offer of a bottle, Blake relates the bizarre tale of their adventures, from their early days digging up corpses through to their encounters with the undead and battles with their vicious rivals The House of Murphy.
Right from the start, with its “Re-animator” style credits, it’s obvious that McQuaid has not only has a great deal of knowledge of the genre, but also a great deal of love for it. Certainly, the film is likely to stir up fond memories for any viewers who grew up watching Hammer Horror, with misty graveyards and moors, creaky inns and gothic squalor. Even for those unacquainted with such wonders, the film is visually evocative and highly atmospheric throughout, making great use of what was likely a fairly low budget with some great sets and authentically dirty costumes. Although not everything quite fits together, with a few gag set pieces and twists falling a touch flat, these never really detract from the overall mood.
More than anything, it’s the relationship between Blake and Grimes which really drives the film, with both Monaghan and Fessenden on top form. The dynamic between the two is winning and believable, and even slightly touching, with a genuine sense of camaraderie. The two are likeable rogues on just the wrong side of morality, and the fact that they spend most of their time drinking away their earnings and bickering with each other only makes them all the more endearing. The script itself is another strong point, both packing in plenty of historical detail, helping to ground the film despite its supernatural trappings, and showing an amusingly earthy wit. McQuaid’s direction is energetic and fun, and the film wisely doesn’t take itself too seriously. Although ghoulish and featuring a few bloody scenes, it is for the most part harmless enough, never aiming to really shock.
All of this serves to mark “I Sell the Dead” not only as one of the few horror comedies to really work, but also as a fittingly tongue in cheek Hammer tribute. McQuaid shows himself to be a genuine genre talent, and it is rewarding indeed to see a director really put effort into recreating, rather than simply referencing some of the classics of old.
Glenn McQuaid (director) / Glenn McQuaid (screenplay)
CAST: Dominic Monaghan … Arthur Blake
Ron Perlman … Father Duffy
Larry Fessenden … Willie Grimes
Angus Scrimm … Dr. Vernon Quint
John Speredakos … Cornelius Murphy
Eileen Colgan … Maisey O’Connell
Brenda Cooney … Fanny Bryers