Thursday, August 06, 2009

Cult Movie: I Sell the Dead

Grave robbing was a cottage industry in early Nineteenth Century England before the 1832 Anatomy Act made it easier for legitimate medical researchers to obtain cadavers. Still, the real money came from snatching undead bodies for two happy-go-lucky Burke & Hares in Glenn McQuad’s I Sell the Dead (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

After years of stealing corpses, Arthur Blake is about to become one. Sentenced to the guillotine for a murder he did not commit, Blake has five whiskey-fueled hours to tell the inquisitive Father Duffy his story of the final snatch that went bad. In flashbacks, the audience sees several very odd jobs, which brought Blake and his mentor Willie Grimes into conflict with the House of Murphy, a grave-robbing cartel allegedly in league with the Devil himself, inevitably leading to his date with the chopping block.

Following in the long tradition of monster movie team-ups, Sell boats a cast of cult film idols, including indie horror auteur (and co-producer) Larry Fessenden as Grimes. Dominic Monaghan, best-known from the television series Lost, takes the lead as Blake. Also notable among the colorful supporting cast are Angus Scrimm (a.k.a. “The Tall Man” in the Phantasm films) as the sinister Dr. Quint and Ron Perlman (the big guy in Hell Boy and dozens of other genre pictures) as Father Duffy. All four actors chew the scenery with a relish appropriate to the film’s spirit.

While Sell might be relatively short, McQuad throws in everything including the kitchen sick, stocking the graves with all manner of creatures, even borrowing from other genres for comedic effect. Yet, it is surprisingly restrained in the gore department, with most of Sell’s special effects displaying an idiosyncratic b-movie charm, rather than going for gross-out shocks.

In many ways, Sell pays homage to the horror films which came before it. Stylistically, it is clearly patterned after the Anglo-gothic Hammer horror films, but includes the occasional nod to the classic Universal monster movies as well. Though produced in the indie trenches, McQuad and art director Beck Underwood recreate a quite credible facsimile of its Nineteenth Century low life environs. Sell also has a distinctly comic-oriented visual aesthetic, starting with the perfect mood-setting opening title sequence. Indeed, McQuad worked with artist Brahm Revel on the forthcoming graphic novel adaptation of his screenplay before the he started shooting the film.

Sell is a horror spoof that never smirks too much, because the filmmakers clearly have real affection for the movies that inspired it. It is a well paced film, nicely spacing the laughs in between the ghoulish business of plundering rotting undead corpses. A great deal of fun, Sell should be a big hit with midnight movie audiences and at horror conventions. It opens this Friday (8/7) at the Quad Cinema.