Format: DVD from Mokena Community Public Library on laptop.
I think horror comedy is probably not that easy to do well. To make a good horror comedy, you have to do more than just have a horror movie with some jokes in it. I Sell the Dead is a movie that is clearly aware of this. It wants to have a real horror connection here, but also doesn’t want to take itself that seriously. It would be easy to call it a throwback to more classic horror films, but that would be selling I Sell the Dead short. It’s not a throwback to older movies; instead it feels very much like a cinematic homage to old EC comics like The Vault of Horror.
This is going to be a film told in flashback. A man named Willy Grimes (Larry Fesenenden) is led to the guillotine and has his head neatly removed. We switch to a cell in the prison where Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) is awaiting his own slicey end. Before he is lead to his execution, he is visited by Father Duffy (Ron Perlman) to provide something like a confession that can be used as a cautionary tale for others who might want to take up his life of crime.
Arthur is held on a number of crimes including grave robbing and murder. Arthur freely admits to the grave robbing, but says that he never committed murder. If this sounds like the start of a story, you’d be right, and most of the rest of the movie is going to be Arthur’s tale in the resurrection business as the assistant of the recently-executed Willy Grimes.
What we get initially is Arthur’s entrance into the world of grave robbing (he is played by Daniel Manche in these early scenes). The problem that he and Willy have is that they are under the thumb of Dr. Quint (Angus Scrimm), a doctor who needs cadavers to continue his research. Because he knows that Arthur and Willy can be executed for their trade, he threatens them with exposure if they do not provide him with bodies, often taking them without paying.
Their situation changes when they get a body that has been buried at a crossroads. When they dig up the body, they discover her with a garland of garlic around her neck and a stake through her heart. They remove the stake and the body gets up and wanders off. For both of them, this is their first introduction into the world of the undead. Eventually, the corpse is quelled again by putting the stake back, but it occurs to Willy that this might be what they need to move on with their lives. They deliver this body to Dr. Quint, who removes the stake and meets his own end, freeing Arthur and Willy to pursue their career without him hanging over their heads.
That’s not the end of their problems, though. Another gang of resurrectionists, the Murphy gang, has a near monopoly on dealing with the animate dead, and any job that Arthur and Willy take cuts into their profit margin. Eventually, Arthur and Willy take on a new apprentice named Fanny (Brenda Cooney), and the three go into action when a couple of crates containing living dead creatures wash up on an island nearby. This will bring them into direct contact with the Murphy gang, and this inevitably leads to the final conflict.
I Sell the Dead is fun more than it is anything else, and that’s exactly what it wants to be. This isn’t intended to be a serious scare movie. There are a couple of jump scares that come across like those at an old-time haunted house (a moment of shock, then a giggle) and, for a movie that deals with dragging about the recently dead and undead, virtually no gore. The feel is, as I said above, like a return to pre-Code horror comics or a film like the original Creepshow. It even drops into comic panels a couple of times (an effect not used enough, perhaps because of expense).
I also love the connection to classic horror movies with the casting of Angus Scrimm. He’s not in the film nearly enough, but it’s great seeing him here as a tie to the late ‘70s/early ‘80s horror films that I Sell the Dead wants to reference. It has that feel of cheerful homage, not wanting to really scare the audience but instead give a happy connection to the sort of material that spawned those films.
I Sell the Dead is far too short, though, running just 85 minutes including the credit sequence. It comes down to a few flashback sequences to tell a basic story and then a resolution at the end. Because of this, it feels very clipped. Fanny as a character is a good indication of this. She’s not in the film long enough for us to care that much about here. John Speredakos, who plays main antagonist Cornelius Murphy is a great choice for the role and appropriately sinister in the part, but appears in just a few scenes, so his menace needs to be created for us in exposition.
Another 10 minutes would make this a lot better than it is, but it’s really fun the way it is now. It’s worth seeking out.
Why to watch I Sell the Dead: It feels like a throwback not to old movies, but to old horror comics.
Why not to watch: It’s far too short.