Thursday, May 13, 2010

Movies: 1) Collect dead, 2) ?, 3) profit.

Glenn McQuaid's 2008 period horror comedy, I Sell the Dead, passed the Jess test.

Regular readers will know, but for the newcomers, my wife pretty much hates horror stuff. She'll make a few exceptions: Shaun of the Dead is a household favorite, for example. But, mostly, she's pretty much immune to the genre's pleasures. I don't think this comes from a particular aversion to being frightened. She doesn't mind suspense or even the occasional repulsive image in her entertainments (she is, after all, a mystery reader, so she's not unfamiliar the multitude of crappy ways a person can meet their end). Rather, she's turned off by the thematic focus of most horror films. Too often horror flicks are exercises in genre repetition or experiments in emotional relentlessness. Both of these goals result in a constricted thematic rigor. In the former case, the idea is to hit all the certain marks in an acceptably semi-novel way. In the latter case, you try to strip everything from your thematic palate but the emotion you're magnifying. For Jess this means that, more often than not, she's going to be discomforted and bored. For Jess, watching a horror film is like being trapped on an incredibly uncomfortable bus station seat for two hours. And she forgot to bring a book.

But not I Sell the Dead. A sometimes silly, sometimes biting mash-up of Hammer trashshop glam gothicism, R. L. Stevensonian satiric adventure, and Raimi slapstick horror, I Sell the Dead plays a genre juggling act and manages to keep enough balls in the air to never be just one thing.

The plot of I Sell the Dead revolves around the pre-beheading confession of Arthur Blake. Former apprentice-turned-partner of grave-robber Willy Grimes, Blake is telling his story a priest who is creating one of those wonderful "lives of the scoundrels" pamphlets that our forefathers ostensibly read for moral instruction, but actually read for a violent and sordid glimpse of humanity at it's most corrupt. Blake lays out of tale of how the Grimes/Blake partnership went from plain old grave-robbin' into the far more lucrative field of specialized weirdness collecting. If you need a vampire to study or are looking to get your hands on the corpse of an alien, Willy and Arthur are your men. However, like any lucrative field, strangeness collecting draws competition. In this case, Grimes and Blake find themselves on a collision course with a rival band of grave-robbers who are far worse than any of the supernatural beasties our ghoulish protags have ever dug up.

Much of the film is powered by a handful of great performances. Sadly, Ron Perlman's performance as the priest recording Blake's last words is marred by an awkward attempt at an Irish accent. Though John Speredakos's channeling of Day-Lewis's Bill the Butcher makes for a magnetic baddy. And Fessenden's Grimes is one of best etched characters in modern horror film. Alternately predatory and paternal; occasionally wise but so often foolish; he jealously guards his independence despite the fact that he's, at heart, a coward; Fessenden's been in the game long enough to know what makes good characters work isn't consistency, but believable contradiction.

The film's humor runs from dry to broad, and it's helped out by a refreshingly inversion of the standard relationship between the undead and the living. There's a million ways to approach the whole monster thing, but they mostly fall on spectrum of between awe and disenchantment. At one extreme, the monster represents something uncanny, a tear in what should be that is a sort of black hole of understanding. There's a dark and sinister majesty to such beasts. The original Dracula, with his trappings of royalty and its surreal actions, is an iconic exemplar of baddies at this end of the spectrum. At the other end, monsters are threats, exotic and extreme perhaps, but essentially part of the natural order and bound by rules. We might not understand the why of each rule, but the rules are fairly clear. A good example here is Zombieland, with its running gag of zombie safety rules. It's worth noting that disenchantment doesn't require the monsters be given an non-supernatural explanation. Instead, it happens when the phenomena in question becomes so commonplace that people start treating as just another hazard in a world of hazards.

I Sell the Dead is too comedic to be awe-struck, so it's firmly on the disenchanted side of the spectrum. But its sly wit serves up a critique of its very approach. For Grimes and Blake, vampires and zombies are dangerous, but predictable occupational hazards. But, beyond that, they are also exploitable resources. Grimes and Blake never wonder what the persistence of life of death means in spiritual or cosmic terms. When the corpse of an alien is snatched from them by a UFO, their worldview is so limited that, instead of wondering what it might mean that we're not alone in the universe, they simply see it as lost revenue. They don't just live in a disenchanted world. They tame the undead and then turn them into profit. Specifically, they turn them into profit by selling them to collectors and people who want to dissect them. In that sense, what they most resemble is horror filmmakers. And their clients, they're horror fans and bloggers.


Unknown said...

Your wife and my wife sound like they have a lot in common. Any other horror films that pass the "Jess test"?

CRwM said...


It isn't a very long list. Off the top of my head, there's the aforementioned Shaun, then there's Thirst and Let the Right One In. Fessenden's Wendigo. Really, those are the only horror movies I recall her saying she enjoyed. And even then, I'm not sure if she'd ever care to watch any of those more than once.

zoe said...

ha! great writing, i'm definitely going to see this one.
and i'm in line for the jess-test list, too :D