I Sell the Dead
by Jason Coffman
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Back in the 1960s, a small independent film production house called Hammer created a hugely popular formula—heaving bosoms, strangely familiar castles, foggy nights— that evolved into an instantly identifiable style that exerted a huge influence on the horror genre. Ever since Hammer disappeared in the 1970s, there have been throwbacks and homages to the classic Hammer style, the most well-known probably being Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. It’s been a while since a really good Hammer homage came along, though, and Glenn McQuaid’s I Sell the Dead is a refreshing hit of Hammer in the modern landscape of horror.
Dominic Monaghan plays Arthur Blake, waiting for his turn at the guillotine following the beheading of his partner Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden). While he waits out his last few hours, he is visited by Father Blake (Ron Perlman), a kindly priest whose motives may not be entirely holy. Father Blake takes down the stories of Arthur’s career in grave-robbing, from his first job as a young boy to last job before the pair was arrested after a trail of body parts led the police directly to their respective doors. At first, the stories are the standard-issue misery, but soon they take a turn for the supernatural— as it turns out, there’s a reason that grave-robbing used to be called “the resurrection trade.”
Father Blake keeps the whiskey flowing as Arthur spins tales of run-ins with vampires, zombies, cruel doctors, and even more cruel competition. The money is better trading in the undead than the regular dead, but as Arthur explains, it’s also a lot more dangerous. The film is basically a series of adventures following Arthur and Willie as they get involved in increasingly bizarre supernatural hijinks, and with a series of increasingly colorful characters, the most notable of which are the evil Morgan clan, a team of ruthless undead traffickers with whom no one interferes. Well, no one but Arthur and Willie, anyway, with typically disastrous results.
McQuaid keeps the pace quick and the tone pitch-perfect, placing his characters in mortal danger that is often as comical as it is gruesome. It’s very funny, and the cast is great. Larry Fessenden in particular is great in his first major starring role. The film takes place almost exclusively at night, in fog-shrouded moors, moonlit graveyards, and dirty taverns, and the sets are all convincingly dingy. The film also makes use of some comic-book art transitions that transform its characters into even more literal cartoon versions of themselves, and horror fans will have fun spotting references not just to Hammer, but to other classic horror films.
Most of the time references like that just make you want to watch the other films being referenced, but that’s definitely not the case with I Sell the Dead. It’s a fast, fun, and very funny tribute to a classic style that’s refreshingly free of irony and pretension. It’s pure entertainment, a capital-M Movie, and a convincing argument for the virtues of the classic Hammer style.
I Sell the Dead will be released in limited theaters 7 August and On Demand 12 August.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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