This feature film debut of young Irish writer-director, Glenn McQuaid, is a visually compelling comedy-horror tribute to the classic period horror of Hammer productions and the 'portmanteau' anthology films of Amicus. Between them, these two film production companies virtually dominated the output of the British film industry from the late-'50s, throughout the '60s, and well into the '70s; but McQuaid is of a generation who first fell in love with their distinctive, studio-bound ambience during the eighties -- when BBC 2 used regularly to screen a weekly double-bill on Saturday night, consisting of an old '30s or '40s black-&-white standard followed by one of the many colourful classics in the large Hammer/Amicus catalogue. (As well as the occasional British Tiger flick, or one of the other lesser -- and less-well-known -- cash-ins on the '60s/'70s British horror boom.)
"I Sell the Dead" revels in recreating everything that nostalgically appeals about those much-loved adult morality tales of yesteryear: the painted backdrops and foggy graveyard studio sets; the lush, romanticised period settings; not to mention the distinctive tone of their macabre, British sense of humour. But there is also another layer of debt detectable here that springs from the contemporary films of McQuaid's youth: the influence of films such as "The Evil Dead" trilogy (particularly "Army of Darkness") and "Phantasm" cannot be underestimated, and not just in the secondary roles it finds for luminaries of the genre Angus Scrimm and Ron Perlman. McQuaid's apprenticeship in the visual effects industry must surely account for the film's very Terry Gillian-like attention to detail in such important elements as its convincingly lush-looking production design, belying the film's low-budget indie nature and -- incidentally -- also revealing a deep love of EC Comics illustrations in certain brief animated sections. In fact, McQuiad has even produced a graphic novel which he's used as the basis for the delicious, macabre comic book style of the film.
In other words, this sounds on paper like a complete and instantaneous classic. And, indeed, the film is beautifully realised visually, while its rich premise really does sound utterly beguiling. But yet, sadly, it doesn't ever quite all come together as well as it should, the end product resembling nothing so much as an enticing, beautifully packaged box of dark succulent chocolate, that gets your mouth watering but then turns out to be near empty when you open it up.
McQuaid sketches us a suitably Dickensian picture, the early-nineteenth century period setting providing the Gothic backdrop to the fantastical adventures of two itinerant Irish resurrectionists (or Body Snatchers) -- Arthur Blake (former "Lost" star Dominic Monaghan) and Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden). While languishing in prison awaiting his execution (death by guillotine -- which seems curiously ahistorical for the period), Arthur is visited in his cell by a heavyset, whisky swigging priest (Ron Perlman) who offers to hear his confession -- Willie having, by then, already paid the ultimate price for the duo's heinous crimes. So Arthur details his life story, from the day he was first apprenticed to the amoral Grimes as a ragged, Oliver Twist-like urchin who helps out with Grimes' body stealing scams, to the couple's later business partnership providing corpses for sinister gentleman-surgeon, Vernon Quint (Angus Scrimm).
After Quint starts blackmailing Arthur and Willie, the two stumble on an unusual solution to their problem: one of the 'suicides' they dig up (from an unmarked grave outside some cemetery gates) turns out to be a vampirish ghoul that springs to undead life when un-staked. From then on in, the partners seem to encounter a whole menagerie of occult beasties wherever they go; but there is a market in this monster-trafficking it appears, and it soon attracts the unwanted attentions of the pair's most dangerous rivals, the notorious Murphy gang -- a flamboyant family of grave robbers who're also keen on harvesting the zombies, vampires and other assorted monsters that their many clients seem prepared to pay so well to get hold of.
This is undoubtedly a wonderful concept with bags of potential for all sorts of macabre and fantastical adventures. In many ways the myriad possibilities of the material turn out to be more a hindrance though, since in attempting to forge a portmanteau structure like that of the Amicus films, the film ends up feeling more like a series of bitty sketches loosely strung together, full of great ideas but few of which are sufficiently followed up on. Although the desired comedy tone is successfully achieved in the performances of the cast, the writing often isn't strong enough for the 'gags' to strike home as hard as one would have wished. There are some wonderful characters outlined, but too often next to nothing is done with them: Angus Scrimm plays exactly the kind of genteel, frock-coated ghoul you would hope and expect of him, but this great character gets precious little screen time before he's unceremoniously bumped-off, virtually off screen. Ron Perlman is wasted on a character who is little more than a vehicle in service to the film's forced framing device, only coming to life in his final moments. There are other great characters here too, McQuaid proving himself very inventive in mining his film influences to come up with some alluring creations such as, for instance, Valentine Kelly (Heather Bullock), one of the mysterious Murphy gang, who's face is so horrific it has to be permanently hidden by a blank face mask that can't help but recall Edith Scob's tragic character in Franju's seminal "Les yeux sans visage". There are also some standout performances, particularly by Larry Fessenden (himself a worthy and talented director of such low budget gems as "Wendigo" and "The Last Winter") who looks and acts just like a mad-as-a-hare Jack Nicholson, circa "The Shining"!
Although the film successfully invokes its Hammer heritage with some really great costume and production design; and the make-up effects -- mainly focused on inventive, old-school appliance make-up that recalls the heyday of the Tom Savini/Rick Baker school -- are very well-done indeed (everyone involved with this film seems quite young, which only makes its professionalism in every area all the more impressive), particularly an Evil Dead-style, cemetery-haunting vampire creature, and the impish, monkey-like zombie who appears in the final segment; still its attempt to mimic the structure of an Amicus film doesn't pay off -- the individual segments failing to provide strong enough separate stories to supply enough forward momentum in the narrative. One can't help wishing McQuid had focused his screenplay on just a few of the many enticing strands included here and developed them into a stand-alone story, instead of racing through a whole bunch of undeveloped ideas that ultimately leave the viewer unsatisfied -- such as a curious 'steam punk' episode where Grimes and Blake dig up the frozen remains of a grey-like alien being for instance.
In the end, the film feels like an outline of an idea that would have had more scope and worked much better as a TV series. But with McQuaid apparently set to revisit this fantastical world, having already written a 200 page script for a sequel, there is every chance that a director and team this talented will eventually pull off the masterpiece they come so very close to bagging here.
The DVD from Anchor Bay is loaded with great extras headed up by two commentary tracks; the first by writer-director-editor, Glenn McQuaid, is the more serious technical account of the film's production history, while actors Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden provide a lighter, more jovial tone in their informal comments about their work on the film. A comprehensive 'making of' documentary is included that runs for over an hour and features copious behind-the-scenes footage and many on-set interviews with the cast, as well as filmed inserts of interviews with McQuaid and other members of the crew. Finally there is a twelve minute featurette detailing the effects work of the film's CGI team.
By any standards this is a very well-made film; but a few weaknesses in the screenplay are responsible for stopping it being the instant classic it -- in many ways -- deserves to be. A shame, but Glenn McQuaid is definitely a director we should be keeping a close and expectant eye on in the future.