Awaiting execution for his crimes of grave robbing and murder, Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) recounts his nocturnal exploits, conducted with his accomplice Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden), to the attentive Father Duffy (Ron Perlman). Over wine, Blake reveals how his low-paying start with providing certainly-dead cadavers to a nefarious Dr. Quint (Angus Scrimm) blossoms into a more lucrative endeavor procuring the less-certainly-dead--vampires, zombies, and a 'sideshow freak'--for an inquisitive medical clientele. Director Glenn McQuaid embellishes this Victorian period parody and homage of late night B-movie horror staples with bizarre and suitably grimy characters, lots of foggy scenes, and a witty story that outwits itself now and then by rushing too quickly to the punchline.
Making Blake's and Grimes' jobs all the harder are the seedy, insane, and fear-inducing house of Murphy, led by Cornelius (John Speredakos) and his mysterious father. Valentine (she wears a mask to hide her badly burned face), and Bulger (he had his teeth replaced with canine chompers), round out the colorful Murphys, who vie with Blake and Grimes for the ghoulish spoils. Occasional comic book-styled illustration appears, especially when highlighting the picaresque Murphy clan, lending a horror comic motif similar to 1982's Creepshow and the more recent Trick 'r Treat (2008).
McQuaid keeps his scenes excruciatingly tight in an attempt to conceal the production's budgetary limitations, but often this produces the opposite effect by calling more attention to his meager mis en scenes because of their static framing (made worse by a woozy camera movement within the frame when least needed). At other times, his closeups highlight the slapstick antics of Blake and Grimes, and their wild encounters with the Murphys, with giddy aplomb.
What really sells I Sell the Dead are McQuaid's Victorianesque characters and their travails while digging up their best prospects. His penny dreadful-flavored twists and turns with horror conventions percolates new life into recognizable situations: a vampire encounter at a crossroads turns into farce when the garlic and wooden stake are unwisely removed and frantically put back, again and again; an unusually frigid grave yields an unexpected corpse; and zombies prove highly desirable for medical research into immortality, but tend to be hard to procure. A chance shipwreck provides an opportunity to cash in on the burgeoning zombie demand.
Rowing to Langol Island in the dead of night ahead of the Murphys, Grimes, Blake, and their new, overly eager, apprentice Fanny (Brenda Cooney) go looking for the shipwrecked zombies. They find one crated undead, the foot of another undead, and Valentine, Bulger, and an angry Cornelius. In the ensuing mayhem after Valentine removes her mask, frightening Blake, Grimes--and a zombie--into a frenzy, Grimes gets bitten and the undead bite off more than they can chew with the Murphys.
I Sell the Dead is a cheeky blend of the usual horror setpieces made unusual by playing them almost to absurdity as Grimes and Blake cope with the ever present threat of the Murphys and the rigors of their demanding profession in order to get ahead. Before they lose theirs. Jeff Grace's music is a treat as it evokes the mood and style of earlier horror movies from Hammer to Amicus, especially when playing against the animated opening credits. For many horror aficionados, especially those weaned on Shock Theatre and supernatural horror movies from the 1950s to the 1970s, I Sell the Dead will be a lot of fun to watch.
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