CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: I SELL THE DEAD (2008)
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares
(THE SCENE: a dark, filthy prison cell in nineteenth-century England. MICHAEL ARRUDA is chained to a wall. There is a skeleton chained to the wall across from him. The guard tells MA that he has a visitor, and L.L. SOARES enters the cell, dressed as a monk. There is tremendous laughter from off-camera.)
LS (with hands on hips, faces audience): What?
MA: You’ve obviously been miscast. I mean, a monk? Come on!
LS: You don’t think I can pull it off?
MA: A monkey, maybe. But I don’t know about a monk.
LS: Well, I’m a monk for the moment. Deal with it. Get back into character quick. We have a movie to review.
MA: Of course. (Clears throat.) You’ve finally come to help me escape!
LS: Escape? No, I’m just here because we’ve got a movie to review. Then I’ve got to leave. But don’t worry. I hear the guillotine is kept so sharp, you won’t know what hit you.
MA: No! You can’t let them execute me. I didn’t do anything!
LS: Sure you did. You gave good reviews to some awful movies, and bad reviews to some good ones. The world will be better off without your type.
MA: And leave you in charge? Then everybody will believe THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is an instant classic! Over my dead body!
LS: That’s the idea.
MA: And just who will you have to bounce your jokes off of? Who will be your comic foil?
LS: Are you kidding? I’ve got a line half-way down the block, people looking to take your job.
MA: Yeah? They can have my salary, too.
LS: Shh! No need to scare them away! Besides, I’m just kidding. I’ll help you escape. But first, we’ve got a movie to review.
This week’s movie is a DVD release, I SELL THE DEAD from 2008. This is another movie from Larry Fessenden’s production company GLASS EYE PICS, who have had a pretty good track record so far.
I SELL THE DEAD is a horror movie with a strong sense of humor and begins much like this column did, with a monk (Ron Perlman) visiting a prisoner (Dominic Monaghan) before the man’s execution. Arthur Blake (Monaghan) has been convicted of grave-robbing and murder, but he swears he is innocent of the murder part.
The monk sits down and takes out a book. He then asks Arthur to tell him about his life as a criminal. It turns out the monk is writing a book about grave-robbers and would like to hear the man’s story. Knowing that the more he talks, the more he puts off his imminent death, Arthur is happy to oblige.
MA: The movie actually begins with Arthur’s partner-in-crime, Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden), being beheaded.
LS: Yes, and old Willie appears a lot in this movie despite his early demise. You see, he’s in almost all of the flashbacks as Arthur tells his tales.
MA: I’m not a big fan of stories told through flashback, for the obvious reason that you know the guy telling the story has to survive the story in order to be there to tell the flashback. Probably my favorite time it was used was in the Hammer classic, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). The opening of I SELL THE DEAD reminded me a little bit of the opening to THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. In terms of atmosphere, I SELL THE DEAD reminded me of a lot of the Hammer Films period piece movies from the 1950s and 1960s.
LS: It turns out that Arthur was at one time an apprentice grave-robber, learning the trade from Willie. He goes on to explain how they were blackmailed into providing fresh corpses regularly for Dr. Vernon Quint (Angus Scrimm), a vile surgeon who threatened to call the law on them if they didn’t do his bidding. Things change, though, when the boys come across the staked body of a vampire, which leads to a new career, where they specialize in digging up and selling the “undead.”
MA: While this was an interesting plot point, taking things a step further than your average grave-robber tale, it begged the question, who’s buying “undead” bodies and why? Now, the film does answer this question, as it’s explained that doctors were interested in undead bodies because they believed the undead held the keys to immortality, and the doctors wanted to experiment with these bodies. As a result, the selling of the “undead” became a very lucrative trade for the grave-robbers.
The problem I had with this answer is the same problem I had with the entire movie, and that is, it’s too superficial. I think digging up the “undead” is a cool idea, but it brings to mind a lot of other questions, like how are these undead bodies the keys to immortality? Just what kind of research are the doctors doing on these bodies? These are questions I asked, and I wanted to know their answers, but the movie doesn’t supply them.
LS: Later on, they make a pretty lucrative living hunting down strange coffins holding bizarre creatures like aliens and zombies.
MA: At this point, the movie really starts to get “out there” and, to be honest, began to lose my interest.
LS: They even get a new apprentice at one point, a woman named Fanny Bryers (Brenda Cooney), who actually gets them in more trouble than she’s worth. And then there’s the House of Murphy, a vicious rival gang who tries to beat them to the bounty, and attempts to steal bodies from Willie and Arthur when they get to them first.
MA: I didn’t like the House of Murphy. They’re supposed to be this cutthroat bunch of grave-robbers who Arthur and Willie are afraid of, but in reality they’re kind of idiotic, and they don’t do a whole lot of cutthroat terrorizing. They sort of fail at everything they do in this movie.
On the other hand, I liked Fanny Bryers a lot, and I wish she had been in the movie more.
LS: As a horror-comedy, I think I SELL THE DEAD works pretty well, mainly because of the excellent cast. Dominic Monaghan is going to be very familiar to most people as Charlie from the TV series LOST (and Merry from the LORD OF THE RINGS movies). He does a good job here as Arthur, keeping things pretty tongue-in-cheek throughout. Ron Perlman (HELLBOY) is good as the monk, Father Duffy. Larry Fessenden, who not only produced this movie, but is a respected indie film director in his own right (his films include HABIT (1995), WENDIGO (2001) and THE LAST WINTER (2006)) is also a really good actor, and I thought he was the best character in this movie, as Willie Grimes, Arthur’s mentor and partner.
MA: I didn’t find the cast all that excellent. Dominic Monaghan in the lead didn’t really do it for me. His character was a bit too lightweight for me. Now, I know this is a horror comedy, but his Arthur either needed to be funnier—the guy who carries the film with his humor—or play it straighter—the guy who is just tormented by the arsenal of buffoons around him. Instead, he was just sort of there, and I certainly didn’t find him strong enough to carry the movie.
Larry Fessenden was somewhat better as Willie, because his character was more over-the-top, but he too was a lightweight. This guy’s a grave-robber. He needs to be down and dirty, shady, unpredictable, scary, but he’ s not. He’s too watered-down, too likeable, and he came off as a poor man’s Jack Nicholson.
LS: Oh, come on. I thought Fessenden was terrific!
MA: His performance was nothing I haven’t seen before. Early on in the movie, Willie attempts to kill a young Arthur, but he can’t go through with it, which is supposed to make the point that he’s simply not a murderer, but the point it actually makes is he’s simply not that scary. While Fessenden does throw a lot of energy into his role as Willie, he ends up being more goofy than grave.
My favorite performance by far belonged to Ron Perlman as Father Duffy. I wish he had been in the movie more. What I liked about Perlman was he played Duffy straight, but this didn’t stop him from being funny. He’s got some funny lines in the film, but he also has some serious moments that work very well. His reaction to Arthur’s line about “Is this the first time you’ve paid to be alone with a man, father?” is dead on. I wish this movie had been more about him.
LS: Oh, Perlman’s always good, but like you said, he doesn’t do a lot here except sit down and prod a story out of Monaghan. Sure, he has some funny lines, but he just wasn’t in it enough. But I can see why you liked him.
MA: I also liked Brenda Cooney a lot as Fanny Bryers. She brought the right amount of energy and sassiness to the role, and again, I wish she had been in the film more.
LS: Yeah, she gets the boys in trouble, but isn’t that what a movie like this should be about? I liked Fanny a lot, too, and wish she’d joined them in their misadventures much earlier in the film. As it is, her addition later on, in the second half of the movie, almost seems like an afterthought.
And don’t forget Angus Scrimm in a small role as Dr. Quint. Scrimm—“The Tall Man” himself from the PHANTASM movies. I always love to see him in a movie.
MA: Yeah, Scrimm is okay, but his brief appearance here is certainly not going to satisfy his fans.
LS: I SELL THE DEAD was also very atmospheric and reminded me of some of Roger Corman’s Poe films of the 1960s, especially because it has such a strong sense of humor to go along with the ghastliness.
MA: Yeah, as I said before, it reminded me more of the Hammer Films of the same period.
LS: Yeah. There were a lot of cool, atmospheric horror movies back then. And this tries to be in the same tradition.
MA: And that part of I SELL THE DEAD I liked a lot, the fact that it captured the look and feel of those older atmospheric movies.
LS: Last Friday we posted your review of Edgar Wright’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and you mentioned how a lot of horror comedies don’t work. But I thought I SELL THE DEAD did a pretty good balancing act. The comedy was more of a gallows-humor variety and didn’t conflict at all with the horror aspects. In fact, in this case, the two genres coincided quite well.
MA: I didn’t have a problem with the way the two genres mixed here. You’re right. They coincided rather well. The problem I had with I SELL THE DEAD was that neither of its two genres worked all that well. The horror is not that scary, and the comedy is not that funny.
LS (Scratches head): Make up your mind. First you say they coincided rather well, then you say they didn’t. Sheesh!
MA: You need to clean out your ears. There’s a pitchfork over there in the corner you might want to use.
Yes, they work well together, meaning that it’s not a blatant shock that the movie tries to be funny and scary at the same time. It’s a smooth marriage. The problem is neither genre here is all that strong. It’s mildly funny, and it’s mildly scary. Think Ivory soap and baby shampoo. They’re fine together, but they’re not all that potent.
LS: I didn’t think it was in the same league with SHAUN OF THE DEAD, or Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD movies with Bruce Campbell, but I found it enjoyable. I give it two and a half knives.
MA: It’s certainly not in the same league with SHAUN OF THE DEAD. I SELL THE DEAD is a very minor movie. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s just not a very good one.
Now, I loved the atmosphere and the period costumes. People were dressed correctly for the time, and they looked sufficiently dirty, but you can’t sell a movie just on atmosphere and costumes alone.
The biggest problem with I SELL THE DEAD is that it’s too superficial. It does too little with too much, and as a result, it never satisfies. I mean, it begins with the grave-robber tale, and for the most part, I liked this. Then, it ups the ante as it introduces the “undead” elements, as suddenly Arthur and Willie are digging up vampires. Then, it’s aliens, then zombies, and then there’s the subplot of the House of Murphy. See where I’m going with this? It’s bunch of things, all of them interesting, but none fleshed out enough to make for a compelling story.
(The SKELETON chained to the wall begins to laugh)
SKELETON: You said “fleshed out.” That’s funny.
LS: Shut up, you bumbling bucket of bones!
SKELETON: Aww. Aint’ you a rude one!
MA: I like movies about grave-robbers, too, as there have been some very good ones in the history of horror. Probably my favorite is the Val Lewton produced, Robert Wise directed, THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It’s one of Karloff’s best non-Frankenstein’s Monster roles, and it’s a terrific film, even though Lugosi’s role is sad and thankless. There’s also THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS (1959) with Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance, and THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS (1985) with Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, and Stephen Rea.
These movies are all excellent, and watching I SELL THE DEAD brought them to mind, but sadly, I SELL THE DEAD is not in the same league with these movies. Yeah, I know, it’s a comedy, but I can argue, and I think you’d agree with me, that Mel Brooks’s YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) is in the same league with the genre’s best Frankenstein movies.
LS: Actually, I like YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN a lot, but I don’t think it’s in the same league at all with the first two Karloff Frankenstein films, FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – the two movies it draws most of its inspiration from.
MA: I don’t know. I would put YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN in a “Best of Frankenstein Movies” list any day. While it may not be in the same league as those two movies you mentioned, what FRANKENSTEIN movies are? Those two are the top of the heap.
LS: And , if you like grave-robbing movies so much, there’s a very effective sequence at the beginning of the original 1931 FRANKENSTEIN.
MA: I also thought the movie’s use of comic book sequences where the live action shots would dissolve into a comic book illustration was largely wasted and seemed to have no use here whatsoever. It was as if it was thrown in just for fun, or perhaps at some point there was going to be more of a comic book connection. As it stands now, these moments stick out like a sore thumb.
LS: Yeah, I thought that was going for a CREEPSHOW (1982) vibe, but it doesn’t work. It’s just distracting.
(The scene dissolves to a comic book illustration of MA and LS in the prison cell. After a brief pause, it returns to live action.)
MA: See how exciting that was?
MA: That’s my point.
And the film’s ending wasn’t satisfying. I found it silly and light, rather than funny and dark.
SKELETON (behind them): All you do is complain!
MA: All in all,I SELL THE DEAD is a mild movie that might hold your interest if you’re in a really good mood, and it certainly won’t offend, but it won’t grab you either, as it has about as much teeth as an old Scooby Doo cartoon. I give it two knives.
LS: Speaking of which, do you have any Scooby Snacks? I could really go for one right now.
MA: They’re in my other jacket. You’ve got to help me escape, first.
(GUARD comes back into the cell)
GUARD: That’s enough time with the prisoner, Guvna’. Time for you to be moving on.
LS (Looks hesitant and then shrugs): Oh well, I guess this is good-bye. I’ve got a jacket to find.
MA: Aren’t’ you supposed to do something right about now?
LS: Let’s see (Scratches his beard). Nope. Just go about my business.
MA: Dammit, I knew you’d leave me here to rot.
GUARD: You won’t be rotting anytime soon. The guillotine awaits.
(LS laughs and darts out of the room)
MA (Mutters under his breath): You won’t get rid of me that easily.
GUARD: I’ll be back in a minute to fetch you.
MA: Don’t I get a phone call?
GUARD: Sure. (Hands him a cell phone and unchains his hands) You do realize that cell phones haven’t been invented yet?
MA (Presses buttons on phone): Ask me if I care? Hello? Baron Frankenstein? It’s Michael Arruda. I’m in a bit of a bind. It’s the old “headed to the guillotine” bit. I knew you’d have a solution. What’s that? Find a last minute switch? Who did you use? A priest? Heh heh. As a matter of fact, there is a priest here. And I can’t think of a better person for the job.
Oh guard? Would you make sure that monk is present at the guillotine, for the last rites and all?
GUARD: Of course. (He leaves).
MA (Smiles): Thank you.
(SKELETON begins to laugh again)
© Copyright 2010 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michal Arruda gave I SELL THE DEAD – Two knives
L.L. Soares gave I SELL THE DEAD – Two and a half knives