I Sell the Dead is a good title. It neatly labels the film as a horror-comedy without overstating its case, something you can't really say for a title like Dracula, Dead and Loving It. It also suggests a first person viewpoint, the nefarious profession of the character, and even gives a hint of the confessional nature of the storytelling. Not a bad start.
The character in question is Arthur Blake, who the night before his execution for grave robbing and murder is paid a visit by Father Francis Duffy, a holy man charged with recording his last words and the truth about his crimes. Arthur denies murder but admits to the grave robbing, and provides Duffy with a detailed chronicle of his childhood involvement with professional body snatcher Willie Grimes and their subsequent adventures. This includes their work for the unpleasant Dr. Vernon Quint, their conflict with dangerous rivals The House of Murphy, and Arthur's brief but fateful relationship with the over-enthusiastic Fanny Bryers.
The film's tone and even a couple of its influences are established in the first few minutes via some nicely designed retro credits, Jeff Grace's sprightly main theme, and an opening scene in which a loudly uncooperative Grimes is dragged to the guillotine and beheaded. It's a sequence that could have been lifted straight from classic Hammer and that terminates in a switch to drawn graphics styled on Creepshow's story links. The meeting of Alex and Father Murphy is an unforced comedy treat, as the two share a bottle of whiskey (yes I'm aware of the spelling – this is Ireland after all) and Alex recalls his misadventures in light-hearted and increasingly improbable flashback.
I Sell the Dead has a lot going for it and an awful lot to like, visually and thematically referencing the golden days of Hammer and Amicus, and melding a number of horror sub-genres without slipping into full-blown parody. Fun is also had with the cross-genre concept – after coming under repeated attack from a vampire they've dug up and set loose, Willie amuses himself by removing and re-inserting the stake into her heart to momentarily re-animate her, switching her on and off like a newly discovered clockwork toy. Even more outrageous is when they unearth a small alien, whose strangeness and eventual disappearance into the heavens becomes incidental background detail to the pair's first encounter with the House of Murphy.
The cast are a joy, led by Dominic Monaghan's chirpy Arthur and Larry Fessenden's snarling Willie, but it's the supporting players that give the film its cult potential, with Quint played with dignified relish by Phantasm's Angus Scrimm, and the always lovely Ron Perlman having the time of his life as Father Duffy, employing a similar Irish lilt to the one Colin Farrell wore in Martin McDonagh's In Bruges that transforms the pronunciation of even everyday sentences into a series of small comic delights.
Where the film is on shakier ground is in a central narrative that doesn't really go anywhere and feels primarily designed to move us from one odd encounter to the next, almost all of which involve body snatching of some sort. In between, the characters engage in sometimes drawn-out chat which, although broken up by some lively stories within stories, is never quite as funny as you suspect it could have been and that trots to a finale that, while amusing, feels more like the end of a scene than a story resolution.
But it's still an immensely likeable film, not quite as sassy or funny as advance word has suggested, but so damned good-natured and with just enough inventive black humour and batty gags to earn it a warm place in the heart of any true horror devotee. And it's hard not to break into the widest of smiles when Myrtle Murphy removes her Eyes Without a Face mask to reveal features so horrendously scarred that they can't be shown on screen and makes even the living dead scream in terror.
One of those Blu-ray transfer that looks good without knocking you for six – the sharpness is consistently good but rarely outstanding, at its best on facial close-ups, establishing wides and the sunlit brightness of the beach scenes towards the end. The colours are distinct within the restrictions of the post-production colour timing and the contrast is well balanced, with solid black levels and reasonable shadow detail, though this does briefly lose its integrity when the young Arthur descends into a grave to assist with his first body snatch. The comic book elements and atmospheric matte paintings are very attractively reproduced.
The soundtrack choice is between DTS-HD Master Audio and PCM stereo 2.0 – both are clear and decently mixed, but the DTS is definitely superior, having a crispness and range that the stereo track can't match. Perhaps surprisingly, the majority of the dialogue and sound effects sit front and centre, but the music and the odd sound effect (location atmospherics and particularly thunder – always a favourite) are spread nicely around the room.
Commentary by director Glenn McQuaid
A slightly staccato but still engaging commentary from first-time director McQuaid, who's a little in awe of the cast he managed to secure and pleasingly open about his borrowings and influences, as well as providing some revealing and even surprising background information, from the real New York bar redressed for pub scenes that I was convinced were studio sets, to the gorgeous Hammer-esque landscapes that are actually matte paintings animated in After Effects. The development of the project from his 2005 short film The Resurrection Apprentice is outlined, and the work of Freddie Francis and particularly his 1963 Paranoiac are quoted as key influences on the visual style. Nice to know, also, that I wasn't the only enthusiast for the music of Martyn Bates and his band Eyeless in Gaza.
Commentary with actors Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden
Having got so much on the filming from director McQuaid, you might be wondering what extra information on the production would be supplied by lead players Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden, especially given that Fessenden was also one of the film's producers. Precious little, as it happens, as where McQuaid approached his commentary with a degree of serious intent, for these two it's a barrel of laughs, as they take the piss out of just about everything (including and especially each other), repeat lines from the film with exaggerated delivery, pass comments on Ron Perlman's hair and teeth, and recall some of their more enjoyable memories of the shoot itself. They also say "I love this..." an awful lot. How you react to all this will depend on your tolerance or even enjoyment of such commentaries – certainly if it were the only one here I'd feel it was an opportunity wasted, but given the detail provided by McQuaid and the featurette below, I enjoyed this tomfoolery a great deal – it's actually quite comforting to know that a successful and acclaimed actor like Monaghan can be as engagingly silly as the worst of us.
Making of 'I Sell the Dead' featurette (64:11)
Featurette? At over an hour in length this would seem to qualify for reclassification, but the super-loose structure, extensive behind-the-scenes footage and impromptu interviews with cast and crew do tend to fit that format. Filming at several of the locations is observed, with a lot of time spent on the beach shoot and everything from make-up to effects and props given some attention, and there's an intriguing shot of Monaghan removing a set of prop shackles with bolt cutters – not for the first time, he assures us. The lighting used in the New York bar used for the pub scenes was of particular interest to this some time cameraman, and Ron Perlman's views on working on independent films are well worth hearing. As a whole it rambles a little, but is still very worthwhile. Like the other featurette here, it's presented 1080i, but this one was shot on what looks like DV, so doesn't benefit greatly from the resolution bump.
I Sell the Dead – The Visual Effects (13:05)
A fascinating trip through the creation of some of the film's key effects, most of which was done in-house. The farmed-out effects (to reveal their nature would spoil a last-scene surprise) are explained in some detail by the good people responsible for their creation.
I Sell the Dead has already found a small but very appreciative audience and deserves to find a wider one on DVD and Blu-ray. I'm not sure it's the great film that some have claimed, but it's still one I've built a real affection for and have found myself encouraging others to see. Whether the Blu-ray is worth the extra cost over the DVD I can't say, having not seen the latter, but I've no complaints about the transfer and the extras are a nice mixture of the informative and the playful, and add to the sense that all involved had as much fun making it as audiences seem to have watching it.