I usually like my horror best when it’s well mixed with comedy. Moreover, this LAFF selection has gotten some good responses elsewhere, but I’m sorry to say that “I Sell the Dead” was my first real disappointment of the festival. It’s a fairly classic example of the kind of film where the cinematic “frosting” is sickly delightful, but where the actual movie “cake” beneath it is mostly a dud. Written, directed, and edited by Glen McQuaid on his first feature, the film is largely told in flashback as career grave robber/ghoul and alleged killer Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan, “Lost” and LOTR) is encouraged to recount his lengthy career by a fearsome but jovial cleric (geekfilm stalwart Ron Perlman).
Young Arthur (Daniel Manche) begins his profession under the tutelage of experienced corpse dealer Willie Grimes (cult/indie horror regular Larry Fessenden). Willie’s a rough sort and ready to do young Arthur in to curry favor with his fearsome main customer, an evil scientist who pays mostly in blackmail (the memorable Angus Scrimm, a.k.a., the terrifying “Tall Man” from the “Phantasm” series). But at heart he’s no murderer and the two become close friends as they eventually branch out from simple grave robbing to the commercial possibilities of dealing with the bodies of vampires, zombies, and assorted other deceased creatures, both undead and unusual. Eventually, Arthur’s ghoulishly sexy Lady MacBeth of a girlfriend (the terrific Brenda Cooney) complicates matters just a bit.
Writer/director/editor McQuaid is a designer and effects artist with a keen classic film and EC comics-inspired visual sense and a gift for horror-based humor, but the story he comes up with here is episodic at best and lacks anything resembling a spine. Moreover, while there are some wonderful gags and genuinely creepy moments starting about half-way through the film, it’s a long slog getting there and a fairly long feeling slog after.
I share McQuaid’s affection for the modestly budgeted horror/comedy/camp classics of old and “I Sell the Dead” is a nicely designed homage. However, without any clear emotional spine to the story, the director’s strong visuals and obvious enthusiasm for the genre, strong acting from the entire cast, and terrific score by composer Jeff Grace, sadly doesn’t add up to very much entertainment. Still, I know that fans of the endangered art of comic horror will want to seek this one out anyway. I hope they get more fun out of it than I did.