A recurring theme I've encountered in horror fan conversations is that of the dearth of new ideas in horror movies of the past decade. I've confessed my puzzlement at this in past posts. If folks want to find a wasteland of tired ideas and dead-horse flogging, they'll find it--the underpinnings of genre entertainment revolve around the recycling of easily recognizable themes, concepts and images. I remember thinking, during my mandatory Art Since 1945 course in college, that NEWNESS and NEVER-BEEN-DONE-BEFORE-NESS in art was overrated--sometimes, an idea was previously unexplored because it was a bad one. My love of horror entertainment comes not from a thirst for freshness, but from a love of mist-shrouded castles, vampires with Eastern European accents, and over-the-top (often-fiery) climaxes. The horror-things I enjoy the best take familiar elements and tweak them enough to keep me smiling.
In this spirit, I really, unexpectedly, enthusiastically enjoyed Glenn McQuaid's horror-comedy "I Sell the Dead." It's a 2008 film, it feels like a 2008 film, but its roots are in vintage Euro-Gothics. The movie is set in that tenuous "Old Timey" period that encompasses anything from about 1775 to 1905, roughly at the same time as the classic Hammer entries or the early-60s Bava and Margheriti Gothics. The film is told largely in flashback by grave robber Arthur Blake as he sits awaiting his execution. Imprisoned after a career of digging up bodies to sell with his crusty partner Willie Grimes, Arthur details how the pair went from unearthing human cadavers for physicians to seeking out the undead for sale (at a far higher price-tag) to occult employers.
Trying to capsule-pitch this movie and make it sound appealing is almost impossible: "Burke and Hare with ZOMBIES!" fails due to the invocation of the too-popular-right-now Z-word while "lovable Hammer-flavored comedy" is far too weak praise. I think the reason this movie has flown under a lot of people's collective radar is because it's not crude, controversial, or overly-grotesque. In that spirit, I'll try to take a moment and bullet-point out exactly why you should go see this movie and quit yer bitching about Rob Zombie's "Halloween II" (which was loud, good to look at, and not-very-smart, much like several of the girls I've known, and no less entertaining as a result):
- "I Sell the Dead" has an *awesome* cast. Dominic Monaghan (of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy) and Larry Fessenden (whose career has largely consisted of supporting roles in some pretty darned interesting genre films) chew up the scenery in a glee-inducing manner as hapless-then-rich Resurrection Men. Their performances in these quirky roles carry the film and make the weird plot believable. No--show of hands: who here doesn't love Ron Perlman? That's right--no one. He may have made some dodgy script choices over the course of his career, but he's an actor who always appears to be having a great time, and his performance in the role of Arthur's confessor Father Duffy is no exception. Angus Scrimm is cartoon perfection as a cold-hearted physician who underpays Arthur and Willie for their efforts, a character that evokes his iconic Tall Man role in the "Phantasm" series without just reprising it.
- I'd have been happy with a standard "grave robbers profiteering via murder" story, but "I Sell the Dead" sets up its own mythology and gave me SO MUCH MORE as a result! Arthur and Willie may be money-hungry, but they're not murderers--they stumble into the lucrative field of trafficking in the undead quite by accident. In fact, it's almost taken for granted that vampires, ghosts and zombies exist in their world. The grave robbers are unnerved by their first encounter with a revenant, but it only inspires them to refocus their business plan because such creatures are rare. Not impossible mind you--just unusual and therefore valuable. The movie takes a turn from the really good to the AWESOME when our protagonists encounter members of rival grave-robbing gang The House of Murphy. Scoundrels, sadists and scum of the vilest sort, these broadly-drawn baddies are one of my more favorite fictional creations of recent memory. The montage in which their history is roughly sketched made me grin THIS BIG.
- "I Sell the Dead" keeps its comedy funny while incorporating some effective chills. If creating horror atmosphere is hard, and creating comedy is harder, then striking the proper horror-comedy balance is hardest of all. If we learned anything from "Dead Snow," it's that relying too heavily on the Sam Raimi "splatstick" school just leads to unflattering comparisons to previous movies. "I Sell the Dead" avoids this pitfall by creating a genuinely interesting story populated with likable characters BEFORE setting off on the task of spoofing gothic horrors of the past. Order of operations, people!
- Texture, texture, texture! Great costumes, good-looking sets and creepy FX work (even if some of it is CG'ed) combine to produce a fully-realized world where the spooky plot takes place. It's got that "labor of love" feeling, but it's a labor that actually pays off.
Now that I've had a chance to explain why this film should rocket to the top of your must-see list, take a peek at the trailer with the understanding that what you see here is what you're *actually* getting, so you can feel free to get psyched: