It’s very difficult to make a consistent horror anthology film. With the exception of a few classics like Dead of Night or Creepshow, you’ll usually find at least one segment that just doesn’t work. With 26 short films and a two-hour running time, it’s not surprising that The ABCs of Death is a very mixed bag.
So, what do 26 horror directors (actually, 27 including co-directors) from all over the world do with $5,000 each and no restrictions on content? Well, pretty much what you’d expect. It’s fair to say that, if you’re interested in The ABCs of Death, you’ve got a good idea of what you’re letting yourself in for. Those who are easily disgusted need not apply. From sick to semen, pretty much every bodily fluid spatters freely at some point (with a notable emphasis on faeces). But with this many shorts back to back, repetition sets in quickly and we’re on our way to being desensitised after 60 minutes. There’s only so much shit you can see, so to speak, before you stop being shocked by it. This would be less of a problem if there were more really good, inventive or surprising shorts, but a significant number fall into the mediocre-to-poor category that are either forgettable or have nothing to offer but schlock.
The decision to make it a truly international film absolutely should be applauded, although it’s interesting that the most established directors still only have three or four features to their name. Generally speaking, those you’d assume capable of making an entertaining or disgusting short reward your faith. However, there are some surprises. A couple of the unknown directors provide some of the best segments, and one or two of the big names drop the ball. So what are you actually letting yourself in for? If you want to go in completely blind, or you don’t have the time or inclination to read mini-critiques of 26 shorts, you’ll want to skip to the last paragraph now.
There’s very little by way of ‘classic’ horror stories. The closest you get is Ben Wheatley’s (Kill List, Sightseers) superb ‘U is for Unearthed’, with its vampire exhumation shot from the perspective of the monster. It’s pacey, inventive, and again shows his flair for sound design. Adrián García Bogliano’s (I’ll Never Die Alone) predictable but funny ‘B is for Bigfoot’ has a horny couple using the story of a murderous yeti to convince a child to go to sleep, and there’s definite creature-feature heritage in Srdjan Spasojevic’s (A Serbian Film) surprisingly effective ‘R is for Removed’, in which surgeons remove strips of skin from a horrifically scarred figure to develop into celluloid.
A big chunk of the shorts go for the funny bone with wildly mixed results. Adam Wingard’s (A Horrible Way To Die) hilarious ‘Q is for Quack’ is the best of these, as he and his writer Simon Barrett bemoan their lack of ideas for that letter. Jon Schnepp’s (Metalocalypse) ‘W is for WTF?’ plays the same trick with more visual silliness, but suffers from following Wingard’s. Lee Hardcastle’s claymation ‘T is for Toilet’ is great fun and will certainly entertain anyone who enjoyed his Pingu remake of The Thing.
Thomas Cappelen Malling’s (Norwegian Ninja) ‘H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion’ is the best of the deliberately weird shorts; a bizarre live-action cartoon in which a British bulldog fighter pilot faces off with a Nazi cat stripper’s elaborate death machine. How much you enjoy Noboru Iguchi’s (The Machine Girl) ‘F is for Fart’ depends on how funny you find girls farting in each others’ faces at great length, while Anders Morganthaler’s animated ‘K’, about a woman’s un-flushable turd, only really gets a laugh from its punchline title.
And while we’re on punch-line titles, Ti West’s ‘M’ has already disappointed many who were expecting something more artful from the director of The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil. It’s a short, nasty joke that could be interpreted as a middle-finger to the whole enterprise. You might see it as a lazy waste of money and time, but there’s something strangely powerful in its abruptness.
There are disappointingly few powerful, or at least affecting, shorts in among the 26. Jorge Michael Grau’s (We Are What We Are) unflinching ‘I is for Ingrown’ is excellent, with a tragic final twist and Nacho Vigalondo’s (TimeCrimes) ‘A is for Apocalypse’ starts with a sharp shock but ends with unexpected melancholy. Simon Rumley (Red White and Blue) delivers a dialogue-free and superbly edited tale of poverty and compromise with ‘P is for Pressure’, while there’s a sad simplicity to Andrew Trauki’s not-quite-successful (Black Water) ‘G is for Gravity’. Xavier Gens’s (Frontier(s)) ‘X is for XXL’ is a late and gruesome highlight, with an overweight woman taking drastic measures following a series of insults from passers-by that reminds us how few of the shorts focused on character.
Several are simply forgettable. Angela Bettis’ (Roman, star of May) man vs spider tale ‘E is for Exterminate’ might have benefited from a bigger budget and Jake West’s (Doghouse) ‘S is for Speed’ is a busty-chicks-and-fast-cars homage to Russ Meyer that races towards a slightly clunky twist. Yudi Yamagachi’s (Versus) ‘J is for Jidai-geki’ doesn’t really have a pay-off, Banjong Pisanthanakun’s (Shutter) ‘N is for Nuptials’ is harmless and moderately funny, but Ernesto Díaz Espinoza’s (Kiltro) disposable ‘C is for Cycle’ is rather too reminiscent of Vigalondo’s TimeCrimes. Finally, Jason Eisener’s (Hobo with a Shotgun) ‘Y is for Young Buck’ is stylistically impressive, but might have made more of an impact had it come earlier in the film.
Given their brief running time, it’s not surprising that several of the films emphasise visuals over story. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s (Amer) ‘O is for Orgasm’ is a beautifully photographed stylistic exercise and Marcel Sarmiento’s (Deadgirl) impressively shot ‘D is for Dogfight’ will prove divisive, but has a visceral power that subsequent attempts to shock lack. Kaare Andrews’ (Altitude) ‘V is for Vagitus’ is an ambitious sci-fi action piece that overplays its hand with some ropey exposition, and while fans of Tokyo Gore Police might enjoy Yoshihiro Nishimura’s ‘Z is for Zetsumetsu’, others might think it’s a nonsensical collection of images and conspiracy theories that he thinks are provocative.
Arguably the best of the lot is Timo Tjahjanto’s ‘L is for Libido’, which puts its protagonist in an escalating series of masturbation trials. It’s as strange as it sounds, but it’s well-constructed, genuinely unsettling and it manages the very impressive trick of making you root for the hero despite the brief running time and the fact that he’s wanking to survive.
So is it worth seeing? It’s a missed opportunity, but if you’re at least intrigued by the concept, the good shorts are good enough that it’s worth putting up with the middling and the awful. Wheatley, Tjahjanto, Wingard, Rumley, Grau, and Gens’ instalments are excellent, and there are several others (particularly Bogliano, Hardcastle, Sarmiento, Spasojevic, Vigalondo and Ti West’s) that are creative or provocative to stick in your mind for a while after you leave. The very nature of the film means that it was always going to be hit and miss and there is (just about) enough inventive, funny and disgusting meat on these rickety bones to make it worth a look for genre fans.
The ABCs Of Death is released on 26 April 2013.