I Sell the Dead
Sometimes there comes along a director, whose talent is so apparent that you wonder why they’re not more famous. Glenn McQuaid is such a director, and his first feature, I Sell the Dead, in 2008, offered everything I want from a horror film.
It was my brother who tapped me in to Mr. McQuaid’s work. My brother and I had grown-up under the spell of the horror films produced by Universal in the 1930s and 1940s (with Karloff and Lugosi, and Lon Chaney jnr.), and Hammer films (with Cushing and Lee) from the fifties and sixties. Of course there were also the Vincent Price and Roger Corman collaborations, as well as the Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg anthology films of the 1960s and ‘70s.
We also had a love of stories by Dennis Wheatley (in particular his series of classic horror novels published under his Library of the Occult - Stoker, Shelley, ”Carnaki, the Ghost Finder”, and Guy Endore), and the tales of terror penned by Poe, Blackwood and Bloch.
My brother raved about I Sell the Dead, and when I saw it I had to agree. Written and directed by McQuaid, it stars Larry Fessenden, Dominic Monaghan, Ron Perlman and Angus (Phantasm) Scrimm, and is near perfect - a witty, clever and engaging story, presented in the style of the best, classic horror film. I was smitten, the same way I was when Boris Karloff as the Monster first walked backwards into the laboratory; or by Oliver Reed when he turned into a werewolf. McQuaid knows his genre and its cinematic traditions.
For his next film, McQuaid is one of the directors (alongside David Bruckner, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, and Adam Wingard ) of the soon to be released anthology film, V/H/S, for which he wrote an directed the “unconventional killer-in-the-woods chiller Tuesday The 17th”. When V/H/S previewed at the Sundance Film Festival, it received the kind of exposure of which publicists dream.
At its screening two audience members fled in terror – one fainted, one puked. The last time I recall such a response was for The Exorcist in 1973, where there were reports of fainting, vomiting, and even an alleged possession.
When shown at SXSW, V/H/S was described as ”an incredibly entertaining film that succeeds in being humorous, sexy, gross and scary as fuck.” While Dead Central gave it 5/5.
Though all the directors have been praised for the quality of their films, the reviews have singled out McQuaid for the excellence and originality of his contribution.
Before all this kicked off, I contacted Glenn McQuaid to organize an interview. Over the following weeks emails went back-and-forth, until the following arrived. The interview covers Mr McQuaid’s background, his influences, early work, The Resurrection Apprentice, working with Larry Fessenden, Ron Perlman and Dominic Monaghan on I Sell the Dead, to V/H/S.
What’s your earliest memory?
Sitting at a window looking out at my older brother and sister as they went off to school. It was a grey, rainy day and I was really curious about where they were going but at the same time happy to be inside and warm and cosy.
Describe the moment you knew you wanted to make films?
Movies were so magic and elusive to me that I never even questioned how they were made or who made them until my teens. Joe Dante made a very big impression on me, he was probably the first film-maker I went and actively looked up (after watching The Howling). From Dante I got to know about John Sayles and Paul Bartel and became a big fan of their work too. When Sayles was in Ireland making The Secret of Roan Inish I wanted to run away and visit the set; I should have. I did spend time on the set of The Field and that had an impact on me. I wasn’t an overly confident kid, and anything to do with the arts in Ireland always felt slightly out of reach, so it took a few years for me to realize I could do what I wanted and be as good as I wanted to be.
What were your favorite things in childhood?
My Saturday nights watching the BBC2 horror double bills were very formative. I really got hooked onto horror at a young age and watching the likes Karloff, Peter Lorre and Oliver Reed was the absolute best thing in the world. I became a humble expert on classic horror from an early age, humble because there was always a kid in the school-yard that knew more about horror than me.
What scared you?
The threat of nuclear war really upset me, I’d pray every night that Dublin wouldn’t get blown to smithereens, I was sure it would happen. Anytime a plane went over head and I heard that low drone, it was like “here we go, this is it…” and we lived by an airport! AIDS scared me too, I was sure I was going to get it just by looking at another man. Those two fears kept me clutching to religion for quite some time, I found great comfort in prayer and so I really do understand why religion can make people say and do ridiculous and harmful things.
What scares you still?
See above! Most other fears are about about depression and illness, things I tend not to channel just yet. I saw my father disintegrate through Alzheimer’s disease and that was the first time I felt real tragedy in my life. Watching it chip away at him and seeing the effect it had on the whole family was tough. BUT you find light even in the darkest days, and watching my mother handle that situation with dignity was very inspiring, and in his sickness I got to see a very vulnerable side to my father, and I got to comfort him and tell him I love him, so I’m very grateful for those moments. For me horror has always been about escaping from how harsh reality can be, so my goal as a film maker has never been to shake people up, though film makers like Simon Rumley who blur the line between devastating reality and horror pulp get my utmost respect. I think Rumley’s a very modern horror film-maker, his shock value reminds me of EC Comics in a way, he’s taking taboo subjects and running with them in a completely morally ambiguous way.
What kind of teenager were you?
I was really into my music. Mostly alternative stuff like Bauhaus and Echo and the Bunnymen and so on. I kept the fact that I was gay a deep secret for many years, so that held me back a little but I managed to make some of the best friendships of my life and we really had a blast running around Dublin acting like we owned the place. I think getting into alternative music gave me an edge; crimped hair, black eyeliner, a two-liter of cider and life was great.
Describe your life growing up?
I grew up on the North side of Dublin, same place that U2, My Bloody Valentine (who my cousin started) and The Virgin Prunes came from. There was a tendency for my parents to push me in the direction of a stable career so there was an initial resistance to me wanting to get involved in the arts. At times, I still feel that resistance, I can be working hard on a script for weeks but somewhere in the back of my mind there’s always the thought that it’s not real work, working on a building site is real work. I was in the scouts for a few years which was pretty much like Lord of the Flies, for the most part I hated it, but there were a few good heads in there.
What was the most difficult thing for you as you progressed?
Being gay and feeling like I was in a heterosexual vacuum was difficult. There was a time in my late teens that I was absolutely in terror that my urges were not going away. I thought I’d never have the strength to come out and let people in on who I am inside. There were no real gay role models to look up to, or at least I didn’t know of any, gays in film and TV were either to be feared or pitied and that was it - absolutely no in-between. I was really terrified and panicked about it. Then one night I was watching a TV mini series called Celebrity, and one of the leads, a jock (and handsome chap I might add) just happened to be gay, and something immediately clicked in me, that one character gave me the strength to say to myself, “You are gay and it’s going to be fine, in fact it’s going to be great”. That one character changed my personality over night, thank God I saw it!
When did you decide to make your first film / write first story / write first script?
I wrote a script with my friend Ciaran Mooney when I was quite young call The Morticians. It’s about a young couple that meet at Mortuary Academy(?) and fall in love. They decide that dead bodies are too depressing to be around, so they start mechanizing the cadavers and shipping them back to the families. It had a real John Waters tone to it, and we based the template on the only script we had our hands on which was The Bride of Frankenstein. We sent it into the Irish Film Board and they HATED it but we didn’t care, we were such little punks about it and very anti-establishment back then.
Tell me about your ambitions?
I want to be able to work and develop as a story teller. I feel like I’m still only finding my feet in the industry and the more I work the better I get. It’s also important for me to facilitate others in getting their stories out there. That’s what has been so amazing about Tales From Beyond the Pale, the audio program I produce with my partner Larry Fessenden. We’ve been able to get the most incredible stories out there from people like Simon Rumley, Paul Solet, Jeff Buhler and many more talented writer/directors. There is definitely an ambition to create worlds and characters and atmospheres that audiences can get lost in.
Who influenced you?
Back in my teens most of my inspiration came from the US. Spielberg, Lucas and actually George Miller (Australian, I know) had a big impact on me. As I mentioned, Joe Dante is a big influence too, there’s something so good-natured and optimistic about his work that I tend to watch his movies when I’m feeling down. All of the Hammer movies really got me hooked on horror. The RKO and Universal classics are still some of the best movies I’ve seen.
What did you learn from other directors (for example, Jim Sheridan or possibly Derek Jarman and the simplicity and beauty of creating a scene with few props)?
Yes, I love Jim Sheridan, there’s something really spare about his work. I think it comes from a theatre background and not have the resources to go wild on production. My Left Foot is a trim piece, there is not a lot of fat on it, all of the richness is with the characters. That being his first film, I can imagine what it was like for him on set, but he shined and it’s an inspiration to me that he did it and it worked.
Jarman came to me by way of The Smiths videos he made, and then I think The Last of England was the first film of his that I saw. Prior to that, I’d always thought I’d hate “art house” but there’s so much beauty in his work and no pretense, he was just going about his thing and people could take it or leave it, I love that. The word pretentious gets thrown around too much when talking about British underground cinema, that word means nothing to me anymore, Jarman was anti pretense!
How did you set about making your first ventures into film making?
I met Larry Fessenden and Jim McKenney at the wrap party for McKenney’s The Off Season. We got drunk, and I gave Fessenden my number as he tried to cycle off into the night and much to my surprise he called a few days later and we talked about me jumping on board The Roost to help out with visual effects, so that was the start of my journey, before that I was puttering around with some ideas but nothing too serious.
It was while doing the VFX on The Roost that I wrote a short script for The Resurrection Apprentice and courted Larry to play grave robber Willie Grimes. The idea for the short was to create a somber little drama slap, bang in the middle of the Hammer Horror universe. It was an experiment with mixed results; nobody was quite sure of what they were watching and so when it came time to do I Sell the Dead, I was pretty adamant that there be plenty of horror and laughs mixed into the world.
What’s your favorite horror film opening?
I was just talking to Jim McKenney about this, and it has got to be Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf: A close up of Oliver Reed’s bloodshot eyes as he peers camera left and camera right. It frighted the life out of me as a kid. Terry Fisher really knew how to make the skin crawl.
Tell me about ‘I Sell the Dead’ - inspiration, development, casting and getting the film green lighted.
The inspiration was my love for classic horror, from Mario Bava to Freddie Francis. I wanted to create an atmosphere and a world that would transport the audience away from their every day lives. The fog in the movie is basically a warm blanket, and I think I Sell the Dead is a great flick to snuggle up to on a rainy Saturday afternoon (with maybe a beer or two).
We were initially going to make ISTD quite cheaply, I mean VERY cheaply. We were going to film a lot of it on green screen and have it be this really stylized piece that we could shoot for maybe 50 thousand. When Ron Perlman and Dom Monaghan agreed to come on board we sort of pulled the plug on that ultra-low budget way of thinking and things developed from there.
Getting to work with Ron and Dom was pretty exciting, I knew they’d be bringing a lot of experience with them so I was very eager to collaborate with them and learn from them.
What did you learn from making this film?
I learned that it’s what I love to do. Being on set and figuring out blocking and timing with actors and camera is an amazing and creative challenge. Towards the end of the filming I was finding my voice as a technical director and that was very exciting for me. The writing is a necessary part of my development but being on set it where my heart is.
At the beginning of production my articulation on set probably could have been better, at times the right words were eluding to me, but as soon as I was honest about that, everything sort of fell into place. As soon as I realized that everyone on set was behind the project 100% it became a lot more fun for me. The moments when I was looser and just having fun with the process are clearly the best moments in the movie.