Dominic Monaghan as Arthur Blake
Ron Perlman as Priest
Larry Fessenden as Willie Grimes
Angus Scrimm as Dr. Vernon Quint
John Speredakos as Cornelius Murphy
Directed by Glenn McQuaid
The Toronto After Dark Film festival did right by closing its fantastic unparalleled festival with a treat for its fans – Glenn McQuaid’s I Sell The Dead, in its second North American screening.
19th century England harbors two infamous grave robbers, Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) and Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) and both had turned their last shovel of dirt. Awaiting the gallows and following his partner’s fate, Arthur narrates his tale of corpse snatching to Father Duffy (Ron Perlman) there to administer his last rites. Taken under Grimes’ wing, Blake learns the tricks of the trade, inventive ways to steal a body and who you should and shouldn’t work for. A hard and unrewarding line of work made harder when they both discover that not all corpses are of the dead variety.
Through Arthur’s story we learn that they worked for the industrious Dr. Vernon Quint (Angus Scrimm) and though they are repeatedly cheated by Quint, they are left with no choice but to work for him, at least for now. As the tales go continue to be told (and get more bizarre), Blake and Grimes get nearer to their final corpse and are introduced to Cornelius Murphy and his gang of grave robbers. Posing an obvious threat and obstacle to their lucrative business Grimes warns Blake to stay away but as the apprentice tries to surpass the teacher things get out of hand pretty fast.
One thing you will notice is that I Sell The Dead boasts fantastic set design. Filmed entirely in New York you would never guess that this film was anything but filmed in 19th century England. An enormous feat in itself for a film certainly didn’t have the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster.
The broken up “acts” in the film are all entertaining but what fails to deliver is a clear sense of mystery as to how our bumbling heroes will end up after each robbery. The structure of the film already tells us that Blake lives through each encounter (and Grimes) and so no real urgency or fear of them dying or getting busted exists. Although this is not a fault in execution it is a fault in the nature of these types of narratives.
The real treat in the film is the incredible on-screen compatibility between Monaghan and Fessenden. I haven’t seen this much gelling of comedic prowess and camaraderie since the original dynamic duo. McQuaid has written these characters in a way that feels very natural and despite being in a fantastical world you can really have no trouble suspending belief. Perlman is good in his role and although he plays the vessel of Blake’s story he doesn’t have much of a role in the film at all. The same can be said for Scrimm.
Although not a perfect film, there is much to love about I Sell The Dead. A great script, great acting, great set design and fantastic makeup make this a must see film.