The story starts with petty criminal Willie Grimes (old pro Larry Fessenden) getting hanged for his life of sin. Late that night, a priest by the name of Father Duffy visits another poor soul condemned to the gallows: Arthur Blake, who we learn was Willie's apprentice and partner in grave robbing and body procurement. Before he hangs, Father Duffy wishes to hear the whole gory tale of their escapades, so Blake proceeds to explain how he came to work for Grimes and just who they were working for. He also tells fantastical stories of odd cases involving vampires, zombies, and other things that go bump in the night. As the hours pass and his execution draws near, Blake begins to suspect that Father Duffy isn't being entirely honest about his reasons for speaking with him.
The most important thing a film like this can achieve is a solid atmosphere. I Sell the Dead pulls it off masterfully. Everything is foggy streets, back alleys, and candlelit pubs. Reportedly produced on a budget of less than $900,000 (marketing included), the production design admirably recreates the look and feel of the classic Hammer Horror vibe. For a period piece set in 1850s Ireland, it's rather remarkable how well all the details fit. And for an old-schooler like me, it's always a treat to watch something that's more concerned with establishing mood than throwing CGI blood everywhere. One element that seemed out of place were the comic book transitions. Certain scenes froze the image and morphed them into four-color panels of themselves. This was unnecessary and kind of detracted from the mood. It didn't happen all that often though, and the story keeps a brisk pace, so you forget it quickly enough.
I Sell the Dead is much more concerned with laughs than screams, so the horror half of this horror-comedy is admittedly thin. There are some genuine shivers to be had (the sequence with the vampire woman is a highlight), but even then, the cast overplays their reactions, almost into Abbott and Costello territory. Again, this is not a bad thing, and when the jokes in this movie work, they really work. The only gag that fell flat was the scene where Arthur and Willie first cross Cornelius Murphy. It was just a little too "out there" to fit the context of the story, if you know what I mean.
The cast is strong and obviously having a good time. Monaghan is rarely the leading man, but here he gets the chance and runs with it, making Arthur a sympathetic anti-hero as well as tour guide, flinching at every door creak and wolf howl. Perlman just has to unleash his crooked grin to give Father Duffy the proper mix of weird, and Larry Fessenden all but steals the show as Willie Grimes. From the grisly prologue to the surprisingly well-done twist ending, Fessenden throws out hilarious mutterings, snarls, and over-the-top reactions. The Murphy clan, who act as rival grave robbers to Arthur and Grimes, are all interesting people with alternately funny and disturbing quirks. The film's ending sets things up for a sequel involving Cornelius, and I think there's a lot of potential for the idea.
I Sell the Dead is not perfect by any means, but it is original, entertaining, and suitably atmospheric. The top-rate production design and stellar roster keeps things rolling along. Hopefully, we'll see more from writer/director Glenn McQuaid, this being his first effort. For all the tired slasher flicks and torture porn currently dominating the market, it's great to watch a movie that remembers how much can be accomplished with just fog and a street lamp.