Dubliner Glenn McQuaid directs and edits his first feature, I Sell the Dead, from his screenplay enlarged from his The Resurrection Apprentice. That 2005 short, a Hammer Films-tribute look at a young grave robber’s first night on the job, is now lengthened to the boy’s young manhood in the trade and friendly business relationship with the partner who groomed him.
All goes back to the Robert Louis Stevenson short story deriving from the actual episode of “resurrection men” Burke and Hare, who violated Edinburgh graves for sale for illegal medical dissection, branched into killing the living to supply cadavers, were apprehended and, respectively, hanged and freed in return for turning Crown’s evidence. The inspiration for Val Lewton’s Robert Wise-directed last Karloff-Lugosi teaming, The Body Snatcher, the Scottish writer’s “crawler” was shocking and sensational for the 1880s.
Place and literary period detail fill the 1945 b&w, and are important, too, to the sepia-ish color of this new attempt. At one point storyboarded in comic-book fashion, and as a “visual diary” of posters and photo stills, ISD is heavy on faked wisps of fog and lantern-lit darkness to conceal that its Irish mist and seascapes are tight-budget filmed in and around Staten Island, New York, and Woodland Cemetery.
The story is nearly all flashback, a tale told by grave robber Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan), to be executed in five hours and drinking all the while. Swigs from the bottle of spirits allow for the film’s clash of styles among live action, animation, silhouettes, funny flat special effects, and fades to comic-book panels.
Older partner Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) having just damned the world as the guillotine severs his later hard-to-find head, manacled Arthur is visited in a death row cell by Father Francis Duffy (Ron Perlman). The brown-robed man of the cloth kicks a cripple and has arranged the brief reprieve so that, for godly purposes, he can write down the condemned man’s confession of evil acts and of faith.
Barring the last-minute twist that is no surprise, and one or two reminder-returns to the prison, the rest is past as prologue. Arthur is restricted to having been present at what he recalls (or makes up), or else heard from rotund Ronnie (Joel Garland), bartender at their local The Fortune of War pub, about Maisie (Eileen Colgan) and a horrible box at the mortuary.
Underpaid for bodies, often unpaid, by dandy Dr. Vernon Quint (Angus Scrimm), the body snatchers’ adventures are recounted, including a couple living dead, a frozen Roswell refugee, a ladylove apprentice of their own in Fanny Bryers (Brenda Cooney) and a vicious rival gang in the House of Murphy. Among these competitors’ “long line of ghouls” are pirate-dressed Cornelius (John Speredakos), his unspeakably nasty and unseen father Samuel “The Spider,” and their disappointing paper-tiger henchpeople, scarred Valentine Kelly (Heather Bullock) and dog-toothed musclehead Bulger (Alisdair Stewart).
By the close which bookends in lighthearted rounding out of the opening, the movie still has not decided its own nature. What it is, is not bloody for the splatter crowd, not biting humor in a jugular vein for those who cut their teeth on the original Mad, not eye-popping SFX for visual techies. Bits strike out in every which way but are not long, deep or effective, so I Sell the Dead develops neither momentum nor personality.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)