Never trust a corpse, advises Dominic Monaghan. Words to live and die by.
As Arthur Lake sits in jail, awaiting execution, he's visited by Father Duffy who asks him to recount his life as a body snatcher. Lake obliges the priest and tells the story of how, when he was just a boy, he entered into the employ of Willie Grimes who dug up corpses for Dr. Quint. Their trade brought them to all manner of unfriendly and lonely places, and one night while unearthing a body at a crossroads, they stumbled upon the arcane--the undead. Seeing as how there's huge profit to be had supplying doctors with undead corpses, Lake and Grimes decide to specialize in this particular brand of grave robbing and they soon cross The House of Murphy, a rival gang of body snatchers. As Lake nears his appointment with the guillotine, Father Duffy encourages him to continue talking about The House of Murphy because the longer he talks, the longer he has to live. Lake again obliges and tells the story of the fall of The House of Murphy, and when his execution time comes and goes, he finally understands why Father Duffy has taken such a keen interest in him.
I Sell the Dead is light and funny and fun to watch. But it's also kind of odd because the story doesn't really go anywhere. Lake is asked to talk about his life and that is exactly what he does--there's no real thread that weaves his adventures together, no point he's driving at. There is some vague semblance of a plot with The House of Murphy, but the gang is treated more as an occasional pain in the ass than as a clear adversary to Lake and Grimes. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the movie, I just think I might have enjoyed it more were I not waiting for a thrilling climax where everything comes together. The movie does have closure, however, and a satisfying end.
The best part of I Sell the Dead is the treatment of the subject matter. I like to think the idea for the movie was loosely inspired by the true story of Burke and Hare (who have their own movie due out in 2010), but with a twist. Slaves to a demanding patron, Lake and Grimes work tirelessly to provide Dr. Quint with fresh bodies for his research, but they can't keep up with demand. Though they don't turn to murder to fill their quota, their accidental discovery of the undead is an unexpected windfall. The undead category in this movie isn't restricted to zombies, but includes vampires and other things as well. But neither Lake nor Grimes, nor anyone else for that matter, know what they're dealing with; nothing is named or identified and this unfamiliarity is refreshing and very funny.
The movie won an award for cinematography, which is well-deserved--the film looks great. The effects are good, the writing is funny, and the cast is excellent. The only drawback is, as I said, the rambling, almost plot-less story. Still worth seeing, however. Still worth seeing.