Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Fantasia Film Fest Review: I Sell The Dead

Never Trust a Corpse!I Sell the Dead (2009) imdb​ Fantasia
Directed by Glenn McQuaid
Written by Glenn McQuaid

I Sell the Dead is a big, sloppy horror comedy that refuses to take itself too seriously. This has advantages and drawbacks. The 85 minutes of the film breeze by and the film is full of bits sometimes funny, sometimes scary, sometimes gory, occasionally all three at once, but the individual bits are much better than the sum of the film's parts.

The story, such as it is, follows professional grave robber Arthur Blake (played by Dominic Monaghan). Arthur's partner-in-crime Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) has just had his head chopped off for murder and Arthur has one night left before his own head is forfeit for the same crime. Arthur insists that he is innocent of murder, but there are plenty of other crimes that he is willing to confess to when bribed with Irish Whisky by a Catholic priest (played by Ron Perlman).

Since the movie is a series of grave-robbing anecdotes confessed by Arthur, it becomes a sort of horror anthology - a series of disjointed tales, all linked by a similar cast (Arthur and Willie) and a similar theme (grave robbing). Like most horror anthologies, there is no consistent mythology, because all mythologies are true and happening simultaneously even when they contradict one another.

It probably didn't help that I saw this film the same night as Trick 'r Treat, a horror anthology that avoids all of the traps that I Sell The Dead falls into. In fact, Trick 'r Treat, designed as an anthology, tells a more unified, consistent story than I Sell The Dead which is intended to be a united narrative.

Them Corpses is Shifty!The other problem with the film (and I recognize that this is insane nit-picking) is the way the film plays fast and loose with history. Grimes is killed with a Guillotine. We might be able to stretch a point and say that he is killed by a Scottish Maiden, a precursor to the French Guillotine, but the Scottish Maiden was abandoned in 1709 and this film is set a good hundred years later since Burke and Hare are mentioned and they were executed for murder in 1829. Grave robbing as an industry became obsolete with the passage of the Anatomy Act (1832) so the film must take place before then.

I know that bringing this up is the ultimate in historical nerdiness and we are clearly dealing with a universe where all sorts of dead, undead and legendary dead are possible, but the easiest way to anchor a fantasy, to convince the audience to suspend their disbelief is to use something real and authentic to bounce the fantasy off of. And it's not like the history of grave robbers or body snatchers or resurrectionists (call it what you like) is a boring story.

The most frustrating thing is that writer.director Glenn McQuaid clearly does know the history, especially the good bits. As an example, when Grimes first takes on Arthur as his apprentice he correctly explains to Arthur that as resurrectionists, they don't steal the clothes from the dead, because stealing corpses is a misdemeanor, punishable by a small fine, while stealing clothes is a felony, punishable by deportation or possibly even death. So you would expect Wille and Arthur to strip the corpse at this point (and for the rest of the film) but of course they don't. You could accuse the director of ignoring his writer's script, but not when the writer and the director are the same person.

Corpses? Still Untrustworthy!My point isn't that there should have been a lot of buck-naked corpses in the film, my point is that if you are going to bring up this quirk in the law and make it clear that Willie and Arthur will follow the law no matter how silly it is, than you do have to pursue that thought to its logical conclusion, even if that means that Willie and Arthur wind up chasing a zombie through a graveyard trying to rip his or her clothes off and stuffing them back in the empty coffin, so that they don't get deported for stealing the walking corpse's clothes, otherwise don't bring up the matter at all.

Historical nerdiness aside, I Sell The Dead is worth a rental as a slight but funny horror film that could have been much more.

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