Monday, August 31, 2009

I Sell The Dead

Taking a break from writing up Fantasia reviews to review... a movie that played at Fantasia. I did tell the friendly Anchor Bay Canada rep that I'd be writing it up when it played Boston, and it's worth a little notice that it will be at the Brattle for three more days (Tuesday through Thursday).

It's not a great horror comedy, because despite the violence and blood, it is pretty light on the horror. These days, the audience can just be expected to know the basics of zombies and vampires, and I Sell The Dead doesn't do much to make them scary. It's enjoyable, though.

Also, Larry Fessenden must be the best friend someone making a horror movie can have. He has this loyal group of collaborators, mentors people, and like Lloyd Kaufman seems to be willing to lend a hand to any filmmaker who needs it

I Sell the Dead

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagements)

I Sell the Dead is one of those movies that sits somewhere between comedy and horror and threatens to be neither one. The horror elements are rooted in the familiar rather than the unknown, but there's often enough plot and mythology to choke the jokes out. Fortunately, writer/director Glenn McQuaid knows he's more interested in being funny than scary, and hits that target fairly well.

Not that it's all going to be a barrel of laughs; the movie starts with grave robber Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) having his head lopped off for his crimes. Found guilty of murder, he were, in addition to the body-snatching, and the same sentence is soon to be carried out on his accomplice and partner, Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan). But first, Father Duffy (Ron Perlman) wants to hear Blake's confession, and Blake, in order to put the guillotine off for a bit, spins him a story of how he became Willie's apprentice in the "resurrection trade" as a boy, how they subsequently found themselves under the thumb of Dr. Vernon Quint (Angus Scrimm), and how the business changed for them when one of the bodies they dug up was buried at a crossroads, with garlic around her neck and a stake through her heart.

Blake has several tales, some self-contained, others building to a larger story. In fact, he could have extended his fairly short feature (85 minutes including credits) without causing too much audience fatigue by including another episode or two. The episodic format does occasionally make the film feel like the story should perhaps be told in another medium. It uses comic book-styled art for transitions and segments have the feel of 22-page comics balancing the self-contained sotry with the larger one. It could also have been a series of short films - in fact, I suspect that the first tale Blake tells is a long excerpt from McQuaid's "The Resurrection Apprentice", a short from three years earlier which also featured producer Larry Fessenden as Grimes (there's also only one actor credited as "Young Arthur Blake", though he does look older in a second flashback).

Adding more episodes likely would have come at the expense of the film's quick pacing, though - I Sell the Dead seems to fly by while also seeming very laid-back and unhurried. That's impressive; McQuaid has built a movie that, while it only has a few really big laughs, never comes close to sinking into doldrums. He also knows when to tie bits together tightly and when to leave a little slack so that the movie can be clever without feeling like it's about being clever. Some of this is likely by necessity - I suspect one character fills two completely unrelated functions because there was no room in the budget for another actress. The tight budget shows in other spots - the effects and makeup are far from seamless (a knife to the head is actually cringe-worthy) - but thankfully McQuaid and company opt to do the best they can where they can (the use of fog to make sets seem bigger and more complete would do Hammer proud) rather than go for self-referentiality.

One place where resources don't seem particularly strained is a pretty good cast. Star Dominic Monaghan is more a guy whose work history contains big names than a big name himself, but he's good here, dishing out some dry snark without giving the impression that Arthur thinks he's better than anyone. Neither Perlman nor Fessenden has what would be described as a very good English accent (although Perlman may be going for Irish), but in a way that fits with the B-movie atmosphere. The rest of the cast (who seem to mostly be Fessenden regulars) do nicely sketching out amusing characters in not a lot of time; special credit to Brenda Cooney, who appears as an aggressive girlfriend/apprentice fairly late in the game and makes it work without vamping it up too much.

I Sell the Dead is about as charming as a comedy about grave robbers who encounter vampires and zombies can be; even when it's not eliciting big laughs, it's fun buddy movie and clever. The audience members who get the references will probably find them just right, although nothing should seem like a baffling mystery to the rest. Indeed, it's a shame that the beheading that opens the movie and the one promised to end it would imply that there's not much chance for anything but prequels; it's a setting that's worth seeing more of.

Also at EFC.

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