Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I Sell the Dead

NetFlix 3/5
IMDB 6/10
My Rating: 8/10  
 
A professional grave robber sits in his cell awaiting execution, and tells the story of his life to a visiting priest, including many encounters with the undead and worse.

This is the perfect movie to follow up the Trick R Treat review because they have so much in common in terms of style, wit, and charm.  I can't say I've been much impressed with the horror movies of the 2000's so far - Despite a much-ballyhooed "return of real horror" after a cavalcade of 90's PG-13 crap, mostly the output seems to be dreadful remakes and/or films scrambling like mad to be "grindhouse" - As dark, gritty, scratchy, and bloody as the directors can manage.  I enjoy some of this but am also amused at how modern "grindhouse" manages to utterly miss the point of the 70's drive-in flicks they emulate, by packing them with multi-million dollar budgets and name stars...  Really, Planet Terror, how many true Z grade horror flicks do you expect to see Bruce Willis in?  (And I point this out despite having quite enjoyed Planet Terror anyway)

So, while the last ten years have given me a few genuinely scary films that I loved ([REC] really stands out), for the most part it has been a succession of tepid remakes by MTV video directors  who mistake quick cuts for mood. Virtually absent from the scene have been the sort of classic-style "fun" gothic horror films that I grew up with, which are apparently not cool any more.  This is part of why I love both Trick R Treat and I sell the Dead so much - Both movies are celluloid flashbacks to the best of Corman, AIP, Hammer, and the like...  Devilish films that aren't really scary but offer up a lot of mischievous glee, with characters of genuine appeal.  I Sell the Dead is really the closest you'll come to a classic Vincent Price movie today - I've often described it as, "The best Vincent Price movie that Vincent Price wasn't in."


The plot is simple.  Dominic Monaghan stars as a graverobber sentenced to death for his crimes.  The night before his beheading, he is visited by a priest and tells his bizarre life story of strangeness... Of his start in the business of exhuming bodies all the way through his first encounter with a vampire and his entrance into the specialized (and much better paying) trade of digging up "special" corpses - Zombies, ghouls, and worse - for sale to shadowy occult buyers.

The description makes it sound a lot darker than it is.  The whole thing is told with a wink and a nod, and a lot of humor stirred in.  It's not the stupid and jarring humor of a Scary Movie, however, instead weaving more smoothly into the fabric of this Victorian horror tale.  Our hero Arthur and his partner Willie Grimes face ferocious vampires and savage undead with a mixture of cowardice and desperation, and bring back memories of the Abbott & Costello meet-ups with Dracula and the like. 

I also have to give serious props to the film's visual style:


It's the creative mixture of Hammer fog machines, saturated colors, and comicbook-like scene blends and intermissions that gives the whole thing the feel of a really great horror comic... Something you'd have picked up on the news stand in 1976 with a title like "Journey into Mystery" or "Weird Tales"  It's just a blast of fun.  We kept wanting to pause and screencap different scenes for how cool they looked, and I can't think of many horror films that have ever inspired this reaction for me.  The entire production feels like a labor of love from someone who grew up a fan of comedy/horror mixes like the Vincent Price films Comedy of Terrors and The Raven.  That sort of wink-wink character is infused all through this, and I can't imagine any child of the midnight monster show era not enjoying it.

So what are the bad points?  It's a bit short - Like Trick R Treat, I enjoyed it enough to want to see more.  IMDB posters complain that it, "wasn't scary", which it really wasn't meant to be.  Indeed, most of the complaints I read about the movie pretty obviously came from people who really had no clue of how to appreciate the charms of this beastie - They seemed to want a blood & guts horror flick or a Scary Movie comedy, and pretty obviously missed the point.  This is to Peter Cushing's Hammer films as Galaxy Quest was to Star Trek - An amusing love letter, not a mockery.

I have to add in one extra kudo for the Jeff Grace soundtrack, which is a pure joy.  Soundtracks seem to be going more into the "ambient, not noticeable until it shrieks" motif these days, and this is the first horror movie soundtrack I've been moved to go out and buy in probably 15 years.  It's the most fun horror movie soundtrack since Re-Animator.  For a taste, listen to the theme that plays through this trailer:


So...  What else can I say?  It's also got Ron Perlman and Angus Scrimm in it, and if the thought of Angus Scrimm as a mad Victorian doctor (Alas, only in a bit part) isn't enough to make you run out and buy/rent this, you're likely not the sort who would appreciate it anyway.  For the rest of us, here's a toast to I Sell the Dead and Trick R Treat, the two best October season movies of the past decade!



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