I Sell the Dead (2008)

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*. This isn’t the movie I was expecting when I first saw the title and poster. I was anticipating something along the lines of Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher, which was a take on the Burke and Hare killings. Instead, it’s a horror comedy that draws on Burke and Hare but ranges a lot further afield than that. (As an aside, there was another horror comedy based on Burke and Hare, called Burke and Hare, that was released in 2010. The Scottish ghouls have achieved a kind of immortality.)
*. The story behind it helps explain a rather odd structure. Writer-director Glenn McQuaid says his influences were EC Comics and the portmanteau horror films of studios like Hammer. The original plan was to do a series of short films featuring different characters, but later he decided to sew them together.

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*. So what we have is a loose, episodic film that skips from zombies to vampires to aliens to psychopathic supervillains. A sort of horror pot-pourri. Which is certainly fun, but doesn’t fully engage. Interesting characters are quickly introduced and then dispatched in a blink. Angus Scrimm’s doctor, for example, or Valentine Murphy in her creepy Franju mask. Even Father Duffy is done away with in a flash. In each case you’re left wanting a bit more.
*. The comic book influence, from EC to Creepshow, is even reflected in the 40-page comic book that comes along with the DVD and which I believe was done before the movie was made and used as a kind of storyboard (another comic was later based on the film).
*. There’s no escaping what has become the dominant sensibility of filmmaking in the twenty-first century, of which the rash of superhero movies is only the most prominent expression. For this film there seem to have been two things driving the comic-book aesthetic: the aforementioned influences and the way it allowed for cheap post-production effects sequences.
*. Whatever the reason for it, it’s clear we live in a comic-book world now.

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*. McQuaid’s background was as a visual effects and title designer and the movie looks terrific. The green-screen work in the montage sequences is particularly striking. And yet . . .
*. It’s inventive, has an interesting if odd structure, good performances, a great look, a wonderful score by Jeff Grace, and yet I can’t say I really liked this movie. It’s likeable, but it’s never very scary or very funny. The portmanteau concept (and, I suppose, the zombie bits), reinforces the feeling I had that this was a student project, put together out of bits and pieces. I don’t mean that in the obvious sense that it contains within it McQuaid’s earlier short film The Resurrection Apprentice, but that it contains so many nods and winks to other movies.
*. Of course every movie is made out of other movies, but here the stitching appears too obvious, and the parts don’t fit together. Which may be why critics seemed to like it more than audiences. Perhaps they were the only ones who saw the influence of Paranoiac, a title McQuaid drops a lot in the commentary. I’ve seen Paranoiac, and I like it, but it sure didn’t make me think of this movie.
*. In short, it’s another comic book. It even has a delightfully neat ending that ties things up in a fun way. When I watched it again, only a couple of months after first seeing it, I found I had forgotten it completely. It’s that kind of thing.

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