I Sell the Dead Dir. Glenn McQuaid

[Glass Eye Pix; 2009]

Glenn McQuaid's debut feature I Sell The Dead has "low budget" written all over it, both subtlety within the film and literally in the writer/director's statements about it. In so many instances, the term is used as a general defense of an imperfect aspect of a film: "Low budget" is a phrase we pull out when the cinematography seems to have been shot mostly with a Handycam or if the special effects look like they were designed by a 15-year-old boy raised on Steven Segal movies. I Sell the Dead suffers from neither of these flaws but still uses "low budget" to make excuses for itself. It is a film with a lot of potential that nonetheless fails to make all of its elements work together effectively.

Like so many similar films, I Sell the Dead exploits the misconception that it is easier to make a low-budget comedy than a low-budget drama. History has shown that a couple grand and a penchant for raunchy or dark humor can yield a noteworthy or even significant comedy. Low-budget drama, on the other hand, rarely succeeds. Without the self-awareness to mock its own contemptible lack of funds, the low-budget drama tends to overdo it, like the star of a high-school play who harbors larger aspirations. But this isn't Hollywood, where vanity can turn to gold practically overnight. And IStD is not a Hollywood movie but rather a stylish and insular piece of cinema. What begins as a small, manageable drama quickly devolves into lowest-common-denominator comedy. The film borrows equally from the comic-book pulp and cultish B-list horror flicks, reveling in the built-in campiness of both. The film is at times tongue in cheek and at others painfully sincere, and its writer/director should bear the brunt of the blame for its shortcomings.

IStD is more an elongated montage than a film. McQuaid uses the cliché narrative device of a condemned criminal's flashbacks on a life spent in an underworld closed to the average law-abiding citizen. In this case, we're talking about the film's grave-robbing protagonist, Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan), a character whose development is inferred rather than shown, leaving the audience to fill in the evolutionary blank spots between his tales. As we watch, these stories become increasingly outrageous, bordering on and finally plunging head-first into absurdity. The introduction of fantasy into the narrative doesn't necessarily ruin it, but it does break the mood. The film also has a disagreeable tendency of being winkingly postmodern and inauthentic, although that may have more to do with budgetary restrictions than slack writing.

These quirks would have been tolerable, perhaps even seriously enjoyable, if the IStD was not so painfully aimless. Despite being adequately cast and occasionally courting visual brilliance, the film lacks a distinct point. Curiously similar to Albert Camus' first novel A Happy Death, IStD suffers from an eagerness to prove something -- although I can't quite put my finger on what -- and in the process forgets that it is supposed to be telling a story. What both need is to be condensed -- which is exactly what Camus did when he re-drafted parts of that forgotten work into his unforgettable second novel, The Stranger. McQuaid already has the style, confidence, and adept hand of an older, more experienced director. If he can condense his ideas, extend his budget and knowledge, and, most importantly, focus on what he is trying to communicate, he has a more than a fighting chance at becoming a memorable filmmaker.

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