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I Sell the Dead (2008)

IFC Films
Blu-ray Disc: 3/30/2010

All Ratings out of
Video: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/29/2010

In the 1950s, British movie studio Hammer Films began releasing gothic horror movies. Despite the fact that the world was anxiously moving into the future and the atomic/electronic age, these movies often took place in the 19th century and featured old castles and mad scientists. Throughout the 50s and 60s, these kind of movies were the norm, as American film icon Roger Corman took up the mantle and produced his series of gothic Edgar Allan Poe films. But, as the 1970s hit, this kind of film became quite rare, as more edgy movies took over cinemas. Thus, it's interesting to see a movie like I Sell the Dead attempt to revive this sub-genre.

As with those Hammer films, I Sell the Dead takes place in an undisclosed time, most likely the mid-1800s, and is apparently in Britain. Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) becomes an apprentice to Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden), a professional grave-robber. Willie is indebted to Dr. Quint (Angus Scrimm) (who is essentially blackmailing Willie), and must deliver a fresh supply of cadavers to the physician for his research. Arthur and Willie barely survive on their meager wages. That is, until they discover a more supernatural side to the business. Once they begin to sell undead corpses, they begin to make more money. But, they soon learn that this is a lucrative business and that the competition can be deadly.

I Sell the Dead comes from Writer/Director Glenn McQuaid, and this is his feature debut, as he's previously worked in visual effects and title design. This resume explains all of the pros and cons with the movie. The film has a very nice look to it and while I don't have an exact figure on the budget, I'm sure that it was far less than one would expect, given the number of extras and the overall period look of the movie. Often, low-budget films which are set in the past look just that way, but someone involved with I Sell the Dead clearly did some work to ensure that the film had a quasi-authentic feel. (The extras show how existing locations in New York were used to double as old England.) McQuaid also makes nice use of camera angles.

However, McQuaid stumbles when it comes to telling the story here. I'm not sure if he was deliberately trying to mimic the old Hammer films, but I Sell the Dead is certainly paced like one. There are long stretches during the first and second acts where the movie feels very stagnant and repetitive. Fortunately, things do pick up in the middle of the film, but this is where the story goes off of the tracks. The supernatural elements are suddenly introduced with no warning or explanation. Suddenly, it's a vampire movie...for about five minutes. (Which has a strong nod towards The Evil Dead of all things.) Then, it's a zombie movie. It's as if McQuaid wanted to cram as much genre material into the brief running time as possible. But, in his haste, he forgot to stop and tell us what the hell is going on. Why are there zombies? Why would anyone want to buy one? Where does Fanny (Brenda Cooney) come from and why does she want to apprentice with Willie and Arthur? The first half of the film has such a slow build, while the second half is awash with ideas which go nowhere.

This sounds as if I'm trying to say that McQuaid isn't a good storyteller, but that's not necessarily the case. The movie contains one very surprising death and there is a very good twist during the finale. (There are actually two twists during the final scene, but one should be very easy to most audience members to see coming.) He clearly had some good ideas for the beginning and ending of I Sell the Dead, but things simply got bogged down a bit in the middle. This would normally be chalked up to inexperience, but that can't be the case here. You see, McQuaid made a short film entitled The Resurrection Apprentice which featured Arthur and Willie, which he then expanded into I Sell the Dead. So, he's already had his dry run, therefore, the longer product should have been better.

The gothic horror film has become somewhat of a lost art, so it's nice to see someone trying to resurrect it (so to speak). And while McQuaid pays homage to the classic movies with his shrouded moors and grave-robbers, the movie simply falls short. Perhaps John Landis' upcoming Burke and Hare will do a better job.

I Sell the Dead foolishly removes the stake on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of IFC Films. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing only a hint of grain and no defects from the source material. The colors look good and the image is never overly dark or bright, despite the fact that much of the movie takes place at night. Skin tones look good and the image has a nice amount of detail. The depth of the image is adequate. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are nicely done, and there are some key scenes where we can hear off-screen sounds coming from the front channels. The surround sound effects come into play during the action scenes and they show good separation. One of the attack scenes contains some nice subwoofer effects.

The I Sell the Dead Blu-ray Disc features several extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Writer/Director Glenn McQuaid. This is followed by a second COMMENTARY from actors Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden. "The Making of I Sell the Dead" (64 minutes) is a compilation of on-set footage and interviews with the cast and crew. We get a plethora of "fly on the wall" shots in which we get to see what was happening on the set. These are intercut with soundbytes from various participants in the movie. This gives us a look at the actual production, and some more mundane things, such as the making of the props. The problem here is that despite the length, we ultimately don't get that much information. "Visual Effects Behind the Scenes" (13 minutes) shows us how digital effects were used to enhance the film. We also see how animatics were used to plan the movie. The final extra is the TRAILER.

Review Copyright 2010 by Mike Long