I’ll Take Your Dead starts with a young girl’s ominous voiceover about seeing dead people and the nature of death, straight into a corpse being dismembered, dissolved in a bathtub, and disposed of. This immediately sets the mood for writer/director Chad Archibald’s dark synthesis of gritty underworld crime saga and supernatural ghost horror.
William (Aidan Devine) and his young daughter, Gloria (Ava Preston), live a quiet life in a remote farmhouse in the cold, windswept countryside. Three things of note. First, the duo loves each other very much, but has a strained relationship as they both cope with the death of Gloria’s mother, William’s wife. Second, for work, William disposes of dead bodies for local criminals. Third, Gloria sees dead people. When the body of Jackie (Jess Salgueiro) shows up not-quite-dead, it complicates things in a variety of practical, ethical, and esoteric ways that build toward a violent conclusion.
It’s a cool, unique set up and Archibald, along with the rest of the Black Fawn Films crew—the Canadian filmmaking collective behind Bite, Bed of the Dead, The Heretic, and more strangeness—weave together the grim crime elements, the ghostly terror, and the family stress. The result is a macabre, somber, gothic tale that’s as emotionally affecting as it is chilling.
True to form, William never wanted this life and found himself here via a path over which he had little or no control. He’s become something of a myth, a gangster urban legend hoods tell around campfires to terrify one another—rumors swirl that he eats the bodies or sews them together in grotesque arrangements, and he’s earned the nickname “Candy Butcher.”
But to Gloria, William’s just her dad. They have a strong, if strained, connection, and a dark, grisly domesticity that drives the entire film. He firmly delineates them versus the people who pay him, the good from the bad. They’re just a normal family. But when he says, “I’m not a monster,” her matter-of-fact reply is a simple, “You melt people in the back room,” and there’s nothing more to say.
Stoic and dour, Devine, and subsequently William, carries his not-unsubstantial weight in his face, a labyrinthine map of well-worn creases, each one containing secrets and hurts and dreams of escape to El Paso. But it’s Preston who truly stands out. Haunted, both literally and figuratively, she is by turns an ascetic realist, a scared kid afraid to go into the basement, and a girl who misses her mom growing into womanhood. She bonds with Jackie, who becomes a stand-in mother figure while tied to a bed, at the same time she harbors no illusions that this woman is their prisoner.
Though short and direct—at 85 minutes, it’s closer to 80 when you account for the credits—I’ll Take Your Dead still takes pains to set the tone and establish continual tension. It gives the relationships, the spirits, the external anxiety space to simmer and develop. Set almost exclusively in a single location, cinematographer Jeff Maher makes excellent use of the sweeping exteriors, shooting the gorgeous wilderness expanses in a way that drives home the isolation. This juxtaposes with the tight inner workings of the house that close in and squeeze like a pressure cooker, reminiscent of The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Steph Copeland’s score runs from urgent, pressing synths to booming, portentous piano and nerve-jangling strings.
While the supernatural elements do fall by the wayside in the middle in favor of more real-world concerns, it all comes back around and culminates in a strong action climax. Archibald and company pull together the various threads in curious, satisfying, if not wholly unexpected fashion. The bad guys, led by Ari Millen’s Reggie, who has the word “evil” tattooed on his cheek just in case you couldn’t tell, create a stand-off siege in an Assault on Precinct 13 vein that’s a fitting, thrilling apex.
I’ll Take Your Dead is a cool, probably off-your-radar little film that’s well worth the time and effort to track down. It blends various influences and genres into a tale that works as a potboiler crime story, a bleak family drama, and a creeping supernatural horror. There’s murder, a troubled father-daughter relationship, and ghosts; it checks off all the boxes.