The grave robbing horror comedy I Sell the Dead digs up a cast to set genre fans and schlock movie buffs a-salivating. Dominic Monaghan of Lord of the Rings and “Lost” fame and politically conscious horror director Larry Fessenden star as Arthur Blake and Willie Grimes, respectively, a pair of bickering body snatchers in 19th-century Ireland. Supporting players include Angus Scrimm, who earned his place in the haunted hall of fame as the Tall Man in the Phantasm series, while Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman, plays Arthur’s rough-hewn confessor.
On the eve of his execution, Arthur recounts the details of his sordid career to Pearlman’s burly Father Duffy. Boozing, uncouth Willie took on the wide-eyed Arthur as an apprentice in the dead-raising trade. I Sell the Dead’s early scenes play like an educational film called Grave Robbing for Dummies as Willie and Arthur unearth coffins and crash Irish wakes to provide bodies to a ghoulish doctor (Scrimm). When they come across a young woman interred with garlic around her neck and a stake through her heart, the partners soon realize that the real money lies with the undead.
First-time director Glenn McQuaid clearly grooves on the grisly morality tales of the old-school Tales From the Crypt comic books, as well as the lurid look of England’s Hammer Studios horror films. McQuaid’s spooky sense of panache elevates the film’s modest budget. The moonlit cemeteries don’t exactly look realistic, but they’re just the kind of boneyard you’d want in your front lawn on Halloween.
I Sell the Dead fudges a bit on the pressing question of who buys the occult corpses and which supernatural rules the film observes. The gruesome twosome find more trouble from the living, particularly the rival grave robbing gang called the House of Murphy, made up of cutthroats with memorable traits including one’s mouthful of dog teeth. Arthur’s new girlfriend (Brenda Cooney), like a slatternly Lady Macbeth, pressures the duo into a high-risk job involving the House of Murphy, a mysterious island, and some unholy cargo.
Monaghan nicely underplays Arthur’s reactions to the outlandish undertakings, proving almost fastidious as he regards severed limbs or inhuman bodies. Pearlman delivers a deliciously hammy performance few actors could get away with. I Sell the Dead’s themes of class struggle and dishonor among thieves don’t quite cohere, but McQuaid and his actors bring high spirits to the low-brow proceedings. I Sell the Dead has the vibe of an evening of raucous ghost stories told late at night at the corner pub, and suggest that grave robbers could make great drinking buddies.