Best Cinematography, 2008 Slamdance Film Festival, and Best Independent Feature Film, 2008 Toronto After Dark Film Festival
Originally a straight-faced 2005 short (The Resurrection Apprentice) starring Larry Fessenden and Daniel Manche, writer/director/editor Glenn McQuaid expanded the film to feature length by augmenting the story of a young boy named Arthur (Manche) who apprentices as a grave robber by adding comedic encounters with nefarious rivals and increasingly bizarre forms of dead people, culminating with a pair of persistent zombies that send the now-adult apprentice (played by Lost’s Dominic Monaghan) and his mentor Willie (Fessenden, who also co-produced the feature version) to jail, where they’re sentenced to have their heads lopped off.
Most of the expansions work – including flipping between the younger and older Arthur – but there are some structural issues that were perhaps too late to solve, due to the film’s erratic shooting schedule which it tough to fix a few lagging spots. McQuaid spends a bit too much time on Arthur and Willie practicing their craft instead of advancing the story, and love interest Fanny (Brenda Cooney, who played a different role in the 2005 short) is brought too late into the story; that delay also restricts the team’s efforts to usurp business from a rival band of grave robbers (the Murphy clan) to the final act, where a lot of new colourful characters are introduced with some haste.
(The Murphys’ backstory is very funny, and includes hysterical flashbacks to an animal-lovin’ lad before angry Da puts his foot down; Valentine Kelly, whose ugly face is only seen by those she kills soon after; and a big bonehead named Bulger, whose severe dental work comes from the jaws of dead animals.)
However, McQuaid has done a commendable job in recreating a fantasy world of grimy pre-industrial England (or at least grungy rural England) where any method of earning a keep was done to keep food on the table. It’s a small-scale production, but the use of digital effects is slick; the combinations of layered backgrounds over and through which the actors perform evoke classic matte paintings, and the compositions are very evocative of both Hammer horror dramas as well as Roger Corman’s gothic, tongue-in-cheek Poe films for AIP.
The dialogue is very dry, the argot is colorfully Irish, and the actors clearly had fun sporting rustic brogues and giving their characters a bit of swagger, boorishness, vulgarity, and bawdiness. McQuaid’s direction of the actors emphasizes nuances, and both Fessenden and Ron Perlman (playing a suspicious priest who extracts the grave digging tales from Arthur) are way over the top. Even Angus Scrimm is delightful as greedy Vernon Quint, a mad doctor whose need for fresh corpses eventually backfires. (The role also proves Scrimm can perform quite beautifully from the shadow of the Phantasm Tall Man character.)
Grisly black comedies are tough to pull off, and I Steal the Dead is a near-bullseye. It seems every production detail was obsessively massaged to recreate a horrific horror setting of bygone movies and grisly short stories.
McQuaid also breaks with contemporary tradition and allows some scenes to flow longer, letting his actors perform in long takes. As a contrast, there’s briskly paced shock sequences, gore, Jeff Grace’s evocative and wry score, and occasional frame freezes that dissolve to comic book images reminiscent of Creepshow. The graphic artist, Brahm Revel, ultimately collaborated with McQuaid to create a comic book version of the film, which is included with Anchor Bay’s DVD.
Also on the DVD is a commentary track with McQuaid, who elaborates a bit more on the material heard in the lengthy-making of/behind-the-scenes doc. The first third is the most fresh, whereas a number of details start to get repeated, particularly references to Freddie Francis and his Hammer shocker Paranoiac (1963). The second commentary with actor Monaghan and actor/producer Fessenden is more lively, although the two tracks could’ve been edited into one tight version.
The hour-long documentary is a mix of on-set footage and side interviews, and there’s some good glimpses of the fine Long Island locations used to create a slice of old Ireland. The DVD’s second featurette covers the clever visual effects, as well as scene transitions to graphic stills, gore, and small visual tweaks.
The only missing ingredient in this set is McQuaid’s original short, but the director long decided it needn’t see the light of day again, feeling the feature is the definitive version of his grisly story.
McQuaid has previously worked as visual effects supervisor on Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter (2006), as well as Ti West’s The Roost (2005) and Trigger Man (2007). Fessenden also produced West’s The House of the Devil (2009), which was also scored by Jeff Grace.
An interview with composer Jeff Grace is also available.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan