I Sell the Dead -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

One would think that being a grave robber was a hard enough career. But in writer-director Glenn McQuaid's bumptious horror comedy, "I Sell the Dead," it's a one-way ticket to indentured servitude and terrifying encounters with the undead.

Set in a particularly fog-shrouded corner of 19th century Ireland, the film is a buddy story about a pair of no-luck grave robbers, crusty old drunk Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden in fully whiskered, slovenly oaf mode) and impish joker Arthur Blake (a particularly puckish Dominic Monaghan), who discover that successfully stealing corpses is the least of their concerns.

The result is smart, gruesome and inventive enough to more than please niche genre fans who are likely to spread the word to fellow admirers of gallows humor.

The story is told mostly in flashback, starting with Grimes getting guillotined and Blake -- in his cell awaiting similar treatment -- being interrogated by Father Duffy (Ron Perlman). The priest shows up late at night with a bottle of hooch, a notebook and a great interest in the occult. Grimes and Blake had been stealing corpses by any means necessary, going so far as to purloin fresh ones right out of a wake, to sate the ghoulish greed of Dr. Vernon Quint (Angus Scrimm, of "Phantasm" infamy), who blackmails them into doing their work for free.

After one particularly chilling late-night encounter with a pseudo-corpse (it was wearing a necklace of garlic for a reason), Grimes and Blake discover there's better money to be made in trafficking the not-quite dead. Fortunately for these two, their part of Ireland is positively lousy with such creatures. But as their fortunes improve, Grimes and Blake run afoul of a rival grave-robbing gang, the House of Murphy, who takes the business much more seriously than the whiskey-sodden, happy-go-lucky protagonists.

As the stakes ramp up in the increasingly surreal story he's telling, so does the mood in Grimes' candlelit cell darken. But though the tone occasionally inches toward the serious, McQuaid never lets go of the deadpan Gaelic wit that makes the film so effortlessly enjoyable.

Produced under Fessenden's indie horror flick imprint Scareflix, "I Sell the Dead" makes the most of its microsized budget, with various New York area settings filling in for Eire nicely enough. The film's lack of money becomes more apparent in the sometimes chintzy monster makeup, but the filmmakers turn that to their advantage by playing up the comedic aspect of these shambolic creatures of the night.

Jeff Grace, a former assistant to composer Howard Shore, provides the circus-styled music, which adds an extra layer of good-natured bounce to the already goofy proceedings.

Opens: Friday, Aug. 7 (IFC Films)
Production: Glass Eye Pix
Cast: Dominic Monaghan, Larry Fessenden, Angus Scrimm, Ron Perlman, John Speredakos, Brenda Cooney, Eileen Colgan
Director-screenwriter: Glenn McQuaid
Producers: Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok
Director of photography: Richard Lopez
Production designer: David Bell
Music: Jeff Grace
Costume designer: David Tabbert
Editor: Glenn McQuaid
No rating, 85 minutes