By Don R. Lewis | July 25, 2009

The joy behind this film is right there in the old-time, exploitation-tinged title. The grim undertakings of the storyline – about a pair of grave robbers whose trade turns more and more curious – is undercut by a devious irreverence. Irish writer-director Glenn McQuaid is out to make a horror comedy, in which the main players soon turn into bumbling bits of irony. Yet “I Sell the Dead” sports playful genre inventiveness, in which fans can delight and even outsiders can enjoy.

McQuaid fashions a flashback narrative structure, in which Father Duffy, played by Ron Perlman – that character actor who will inhabit offbeat historical roles forever – visits an imprisoned Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan), who awaits the guillotine for body snatching. While this confessional approach suggests the fatalism of something like “Double Indemnity,” the tone remains slight, thanks to light performances and a kitschy soundtrack.

Arthur narrates his endeavors with Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden, also having a great time), his apprentice-turned-accomplice who has already lost his head to justice. While taking up right from the Body Snatcher tradition – launched almost solely by Robert Lewis Stevenson’s gothic short story and retold by Val Lewton with Karloff in 1945 – the film soon takes a helping of the zombie film, with a re-animated femme corpse who uncannily glides right off her tippy toes. When the snatching duo starts finding zombies, this could put a dent in their plans to sell the deceased. Yet, they seem to have stumbled across a more profitable market (never explained, yet hardly a MacGuffin worth noting in the tongue-in-cheek proceedings).

With this step, you’d think that “I Sell” has found its groove. But zombies come in all shapes, and with much personality. When one is trapped in a cage, it shows dread toward a haunting image of another kind, until the zombie breaks free to tear out its tormentor’s throat. And zombies aren’t the oddest thing revealed in the body snatchers’ search – one finding is something that only the Python team or Alex Cox would try to pull off. And even those hooligans would do it slightly.

Just when the horror film’s cabinets have been raided, it appears that “I Sell” heads to the gangster film when we meet the Murphy family, fierce competition to Arthur and Willie. Then again, this ghoulish clan, with a gnarl-toothed brother and a white-masked sister, owe more to the family Leatherface, and is about just as nice.

The production values are slim, but just right, as “I Sell” employs B-movie aesthetics in support of its genre-playfulness. Some intercut animation cards add a comic-book touch that is more juice for the storytelling emphasis of the framing tale.

As a highlight in this year’s Danger After Dark series at the Philadelphia Film Festival/Cinefest (after taking awards at Slamdance and Toronto), we get a nice dose of jests among considerable darkness. Now it shows up at Fantasia – but gets only one screening? Come on, now!

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