I Sell The Dead
IFC Films // Unrated // $19.98 // March 30, 2010
Review by Nick Hartel | posted March 30, 2010
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"I Sell the Dead" is a horror/comedy that has been making the festival circuit for the past two years. I was quite intrigued at the film's premise, a young grave robber, Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan), on the night before his beheading, recants his life's work to a priest (Ron Perlman). This was a film advertising some black humor amidst some classic horror monsters. Clocking in at just 85 minutes in length, it should have been a nice little jog with a timeless concept. Instead, it's a movie that doesn't do much at all for a good 40 minutes.

Glenn McQuaid's story (he also directed and edited) quite literally stats at the beginning of Blake's grave robbing career, setting up the relationship between himself and mentor/eventual best friend, Willie Grimes (Larry Fesseden). Blake's career begins quite normally, well at least as normally as a grave robber's career could, with he and Grimes selling corpses to the mysterious Dr. Quint, played by "Phantasm's" Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm, in what adds up to little more than a cameo. Things eventually take a turn for the supernatural in a scene that borrow heavily from the Sam Raimi playbook of horror-comedy. Grimes and Blake stumble across the corpse of what is obviously a vampire, and shockingly, laugh-free shenanigans ensue.

A lot of the problem with "I Sell the Dead" is the flashback narrative device. Blake's life is told in key events to the priest, but since we know where our two characters eventually end up, any early attempt to add suspense to things falls very flat. The film drags along, until Blake and Grimes encounter the film's antagonists, the House of Murphy. At this point, the duo are now trafficking in purely supernatural corpses and the body that forces our heroes to cross paths with one of the villains was unique enough to pull me back into the film. The latter half of the film, is to be honest, rather entertaining, but for what is supposed to be a comedy, the laughs are largely dry and sparse.

The film is propped up a notch or two higher than it should by the surprise show stealing performance by Larry Fesseden. Of the film's three highest build actors, Monaghan and Perlman, Fesseden is the only star that really gets into character and feels apart of this quirky world. His over-exaggerated, surly accent fits his wild-eyed looks. His devotion to his character saves the first half of the film just enough, that you won't instinctively eject the disc and move to something else. He fortunately gets a relief from carrying the weight of the movie in the film's final act, which finally brings the much needed laughs and plot advancement.

The film isn't helped by an abundance of pedestrian filming; the movie looks very low budget, at times giving the feeling of the simplest of sets being digitally added. The film's (few) creature effects aren't mind-blowing, but do the job they're intended for. McQuaid does deserve credit for adding some stylish animation in a handful of sequences. These do nicely to bridge the cut from flashback to present day, as well as memorably introduce the color House of Murphy. It's one of the film's most unique aspects and could have been used more often.

I honestly wanted to "I Sell the Dead" a lot more than I did. I wasn't expecting much more than a horror-comedy in the vein of "Evil Dead II." McQuaid's script feels like two movies, chopped in half with the conclusion of movie two pasted to the beginning of movie one. There's nothing glaringly wrong with the dialogue, it's all pacing issues. For instance, the character of Dr. Quint is initially intriguing, but quickly disposed of, making the excessive time spent on flashbacks with Blake and Grimes working for him, feel wasteful. Likewise, the first flashback to a young Blake completing his first job with his new mentor, come off as two-minute sequences, stretched thin. Even later in the movie, one wishes we had more adventures of our two ne'er-do-wells, than we are given.

Ultimately, "I Sell the Dead" rewards patient viewers with a satisfying, original conclusion. The second half of the movie, along with Larry Fesseden's performance is enough to make this a decent rental. The film's languishing opening act and a half though, coupled with an out of place performance from Monaghan, who doesn't seem to quite get the tone of the film in certain scenes, and a very lazy effort from Ron Perlman, are enough to partially kneecap the film's overall score. McQuaid leaves the movie open for a sequel and to be honest, if a sequel was more like the third act in particular, I'd definitely be on board with seeing it, but such a sequel would have to be firing on all cylinders as the subject matter is aimed at a small audience.


The Video

The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is quite sharp, almost too much at times, highlighting the limitations of the budget. Color levels are appropriate from scene to scene, depending on intended tone. Sequences taking place in a cold graveyard leave our characters looking almost corpselike themselves, while life is injected back into flesh during down moments in the local tavern. Contrast is well balanced, a critical factor for a movie mostly taking place at night. Detail falls a little bit high on the average side, while remaining free of any glaring technical faults.

The Audio

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is quite disappointing. Surrounds are used appropriately for atmosphere and during the film's few, but quite bombastic action sequences. Unfortunately these loud and live scenes are overpowering, when compared to the relatively low-mixed dialogue heavy sequences. I had to play with the volume, so I could hear the actors at a decent level, but quickly had to turn things down when it all hits the fan. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included as well as Spanish subtitles.

The Extras

"I Sell the Dead" comes quite packed in the extras department. Up first are two commentary tracks, the first a much lighter affair from stars Monaghan and Fessenden. The two share some memories of filming and have fun cracking some jokes. The second commentary is an engaging, technical track from Glenn McQuaid. He goes into all aspects of production and explains some of the decisions driving his writing.

"The Making of 'I Sell the Dead'" is an hour-long documentary covering production of the film. It's a rough look at the making of the film, utilizing behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews with cast and crew. "The Visual Effects of 'I Sell the Dead'" is a brief featurette highlighting some of the film's practical and digital effects. It does spoil some key scenes in the movie, so viewers beware. Last up on the disc is the film's trailer.

The final bonus feature is housed in the disc's case in the form of a comic adaptation of the film. It features the same art style that pops up in the film and graces the wonderful original poster. Sadly this poster was not used for the DVD's cover art, instead replaced by a poorly designed Photoshop effort, that doesn't set the movie apart from generic straight-to-video schlock.

Final Thoughts

"I Sell the Dead" isn't a great movie. Like I said before, it feels like two films, partially gutted and then reformed. Glenn McQuaid deserves credit for crafting a story original enough to make you want to see where it will go, even if it drags its feet getting there. A standout performance from Larry Fessenden cements its status as a must rent. The disc itself is surprising in terms of bonus content, although the audio track is a frustrating letdown. Rent It.

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