Review: I Sell The Dead
“Never trust a corpse.”
That’s the line director Glenn McQuaid wants us to giggle at and quote and take away from I Sell the Dead. Unfortunately, it falls flat, and isn’t too funny, and I’m afraid that sums up the film, too.
The premise is delightful enough: Awaiting the guillotine, Dickensian-era grave-robber/ghoul (I did enjoy the distinction they made between the two terms) Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) confesses his crimes/relates his adventures to man-of-the-cloth Father Duffy (Ron Perlman).
For about the first 15 minutes, I wasn’t sure if ISTD was meant to be a comedy, about five minutes after that, I wasn’t sure it was meant to be anything. It’s not drama because everything’s treated as a joke, and it’s not a comedy because the jokes aren’t very funny. McQuaid’s created some characters that could be interesting if he weren’t afraid to sympathize with them. Sure, grave-robbing’s a horrible thing, but people did and continue to do it, and it’d be fascinating to know what drives someone into such a trade and funnier if the humor came from how they dealt with the everyday aspects of their job. Instead, McQuaid holds his characters at a distance when the film would be immeasurably stronger if we laughed with them and not at them.
We learn about the early life of Arthur and how he got mixed up with veteran grave-robber Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) and how the two of them get blackmailed into providing fresh corpses for the vile Dr. Vernon Quint (Angus Scrimm). Again, all of this would make a great story if McQuaid took it and his characters seriously—instead, they just grunt and grumble and spit and drink and deliver exposition after exposition.
And then the flick takes a supernatural twist. There’s a bit of a setup, so it’s not wholly unexpected, but the payoff’s weak. That said, the film gets better after it. And I did laugh at Willie’s playful…uh…desecration…of a staked vampire. And the foot.
But the movie doesn’t get redeemably funnier, and while a lot more twists are delivered, you see them coming—how Willie and Arthur escape from a rival gang of grave-robbers, the Big Reveal at the End, and How Arthur Gets Out of This One.
It’s disappointing because I Sell the Dead has a lot going for it: Perlman and Fessenden do a lot with a little, and the sets are superb— lonely dirt roads drenched in fog; graveyards long-since forgotten (because anyone who knew the inhabitants are just about as long-since forgotten); and barrooms filled with dark and mysterious patrons who’d have their own wretched secrets and stories to tell, if the director cared a little bit more.