The ABCs of Death Review
26 Directors. 26 Ways to Die.
The history of the horror anthology is quite illustrious, peppered as it is with dazzling vignettes of inspired flair and wit from Ealing’s Dead of Night to the lurid Weird Tales vibe of Romero’s Creepshow, taking in the visually ravishing and memorably haunting, such as A Drop of Water in Bava’s Black Sabbath and the overall elegance of the classic Kwaidan, the Poe-inspired Tales of Terror and the decorative fantasy of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, and the quintessential wraparound collective made so avidly and enjoyably by Amicus. The majority of these earlier examples have been built around mini movies, microcosmic dramas that, in their heyday, seemed determined to embellish a moral code with their semi-guilty or totally guilty saps falling for Fate-bound warnings to mend their ways or well-deserved comeuppances from beyond the grave. Indeed, the theme of “death” is the very bedrock around which the majority of these striking chapters have evolved.
EC Comics, the fantastical short fiction of Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, and the celebrated Pan’s Book of Horror Stories (a truly wonderful series of volumes, highlighted by extremely provocative cover art), have provided the meat and gristle for many such set-piece installments. The omnibus approach was a very valid and commercial venture for a time, but it has since fallen from grace.
So, whilst the anthology film has become a somewhat stale and vintage conceit, with really only the poor VHS, the more juvenile but brilliantly entertaining Trick ‘r’ Treat and the stark animated collection Fear(s) Of The Dark attempting to bring the idea back to modern audiences, it is great that a project such as this vast undertaking has gotten off the ground in the first place. 26 filmmakers from all around the world were tasked with supplying a short movie based around the concept of death. Each was given a letter of the alphabet with which to title their movie and be inspired by.
A bold experiment in modern horror, or a phony phonetic folly?
As you would expect with some of the filmmakers involved, and taking onboard today’s far broader outlook and the bewildering varieties in taste and what constitutes a taboo to be broken, The ABCs of Death mixes the sly with the sadistic, the obvious with the outrageous, the amusing with the disturbing and the satirical with the surreal. Not everything works, and it would be unlikely to find somebody who could applaud all that they found here.
Taking advantage of live-action, CG animation, stop-motion, linear storytelling, abstract meandering, deliberate shock-tactics and passages of subtlety, farce and absurdity, the anthology has no distinctive bookended style with which to trap itself. With instructions to think outside the box, the contributors are not restricted by a guiding hand or an overarching focus to herd them in one collective direction. Peter Cushing is not dealing out Tarot Card fortunes as Dr. Terror, and Dan Ackroyd isn’t trying to show us “something really scary!” The huge number of creators recruited and the diverse imaginations that they all bring to the project ensure that whatever seems clichéd or generic one minute is turned about-face, subverted and corrupted the next. Naturally with so much material included, some stories seem to founder and fall by the wayside, whilst others certainly resonate and linger in the mind long afterwards. Some are very simple affairs, with only one performer and a fairly mundane payoff, whilst others are elaborately constructed, willfully controversial and furiously in-yer-face. The wacky sensibilities of foreign cinema does tend to dominate the proceedings, with offerings hailing from Japan, Thailand and Indonesia, as well as Belgium, Serbia, France, Spain, Norway and Denmark, and then the US, Canada, Mexico and Chile. Oz gets in on the act too, and there’s actually a quartet from the UK! There is a whiff anime permeating a few of the tales. Slapstick figures in some. Social allegory runs rampant. There are those that get smutty, whilst others go for the throat. Some even do both.
There are plenty of laughs to be had, even if the humour can sometimes be of the blackest, bleakest kind. And even if some are undeniably disappointing, the majority of the death-dealing odes detailed herein have much merit to their merry mini marauding. What there really isn’t enough of, though, is actual terror. In fact, there isn’t a single story that I can recall right now that elicited even the slightest frisson of conventional tension, fear or dread. Now that might sound a little off-putting considering that this is a horror anthology, but I feel the impetus for this project doesn’t lie in that direction at all.
A bunch of unique individuals, all of whom are known for pushing the envelope, whether thematically or explicitly, are doubtlessly going to attempt to outdo one another. And this competitive edge is keenly felt. Only a couple opt for a more sedate and contemplative approach. Most like to crash into you, head-on … and hope to leave you reeling. With the short running time for each story – roughly four or five minutes apiece – the intention is to hit and run. This inevitably means that there is no character development or sense of story in all but a smattering of stories. But the big surprise is just how much material and actual plotting some of these people are able to cram in there., given the restrictions of the format.
One potential downside is in the lack of singular direction. With 26 individual tales being told, and a huge disparity in styles, themes and tones, the overall film can seem to lose its identity, the resulting mélange bitty, bite-sized and unsatisfying. The wraparound device, whilst totally unnecessary, is slightly missed, with the compendium becoming an irregular and random scattering of stories that, given their understandably short running time, tends to produce a cold, bludgeoning effect on the viewer, rather than establishing a smooth ebb and flow. Then again, from an opposing perspective, this approach provides a genuine sense of unpredictability. You really have no idea what will come next, and this is surely an advantage.
Plus, with the relatively short duration of each episode and the sheer number of them on offer, you can rest assured that if you didn’t like this particular story, another one will be along in a few minutes.
There is a high amount of gore and violence presented, some of which is specifically designed to offend, and the level of inspiration is frequently staggering. Not all of the FX are that good, though. The prosthetics can be more than decent, some mutilations are spectacularly nasty (a finger-mashed, bisected hand right at the start sets the bloody bar pretty high), but the copious CG elements won’t be wowing anyone, I’m afraid.
Some entries strive to be shocking and definitely succeed, some are just shockingly inept. Some, a very select few, are actually quite brilliant. So, The ABCs of Death is a mixed-bag – which is perfectly understandable given the subject matter and the manner in which it has been dealt-with and ultimately unleashed. Yet, out of 26 highly stylized filmmakers there is really only a handful that stand out, retaining their individuality, and their original voices and visions, whilst the rest either slum it (Ti West) or miss by a mile (Grau, Bettis and Espinoza).
Let the banquet begin …
Apocalypse from Nacho Vigalondo (Time Crimes) is a fine and resonant beginning to this alphabetic assemblage of atrocity. I loved Time Crimes, which was extraordinarily ripped-off by ???? with the equally brilliant Triangle, and this is mean, moody, melancholic and quite memorable. This one boasts that great mangled hand makeup, too.
Bigfoot from Adrian Garcia Bogliano (Cold Sweat) is a demented twist of a bedtime story that, although far from dull, is actually pretty lame and all rather stupid. If anything it is this entry that recalls the poetic comeuppance flavor of EC and old Amicus … with a bit of sex thrown in.
Cycle from Ernesto Diaz Espinoza (Mirageman, Mandrill) is, ironically enough, another rip-off of Time Crimes … and whilst initially intriguing, goes absolutely nowhere and outstays its welcome with a dearth of originality. Nothing to see here. Bes to move along.
Dogfight from Marcel Sarmiento (Deadgirl) is one of the standouts of the collection. Shot in a pulverizing, impact-heavy sweat-stain hue, and utilizing all manner of film-speeds, editing and compositions, this is a brilliantly shot, powerfully directed and well-acted tale of hard-fought retribution. Stunningly made and stuffed with quite dynamic and unusual imagery (man v dog in an underground bare-knuckle/bare-fang bout), and also boasting some of the ugliest faces ever put on screen outside of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti. This is awesome … and quite possibly my own personal favourite of the collection.
Exterminate from Angela Bettis (Roman) is a pure one-note idea that does exactly, precisely what it you expect it to do, which means that we have all seen the twist ending coming from a mile away. Ropy CG spiders don’t help. Very disappointing. But a cool retro Star Trek Original Series Khan poster on the wall.
Fart from Noburu Iguchi (Robo Geisha) defies all rational explanation. If I began to tell you what this is about, you simply wouldn’t believe me. But, hey, I’ll try anyway … it’s about Japanese schoolgirl lovers who fart their way to a blissful escape from the apocalypse and wind-up deep inside a coruscating anal paradise. See. Told you. I can’t decide if I like this … or if I love it. Mad stuff that you feel pretty stupid enjoying.
Gravity from Andrew Traucki (The Reef) once again sees the shark-dramatist plunging into deadly Aussie waters with what amounts to a bland surfing-suicide shot entirely from the character’s point of view. A big damp squib. Avoid.
Hydro-Electric Diffusion from Thomas Malling (Norwegian Ninja) is completely off its rocker. It’s the Second World War told from a burlesque viewpoint, boasting a sexy Nazi cat-vixen and a turned-on Churchill aviator-pooch, and a whole load of inventive 50’s SF paraphernalia. It’s an eye-popping panto of all-out arousal/destruction. Fast, furious, frivolous. And bloody good fun.
Ingrown from Jorge Michel Grau (We Are What We Are) is a dark, unpleasant and intensely personal exposé of the dangers of the modern world. It is also extremely uncomfortable and repellent. ’snuff said.
Jidai-Geki from Yudai Yamaguchi (Yakuza Weapon) is terrifically silly and highly entertaining, even if it does drag the same joke on for its entire duration. If you can imagine Carter Wong’s about-to-explode Chinse demon-warrior, Thunder, from Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China crossed with the mutating monster from another dimension summoned in Joe Dante’s segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, you’ve got this change-o-head extravaganza about a ritual execution in feudal Japan. Another zany one, folks. But I had a great time with it.
Klutz from Anders Morgenthaler (Princess) is a Viz-style episode of rather obvious toilet humour. It is determinedly ridiculous and skews several shades of Southpark/Family Guy. The turd that won’t flush fights back, becoming a mewling brown-toboggan variant of the Newborn in Alien Resurrection. Like many others in the collection, this barely qualifies as a horror story, but it is splatstick irreverence that you’ll either enjoy or just hate. I enjoyed it.
Libido from Timo Tjahjanto (Macabre) is sure to set tongues wagging. Highly controversial and potentially upsetting, I found this insanely grim and deadly masturbation contest to be hugely effective. Partly comical farce, partly incendiary, this is exactly the sort of thing that I would have expected A Serbian Film’s Srdjan Spasojevic to have made. His offering comes later, however. Tjahjanto’s short film is deliberately provocative, but there is a devious sense of humour to it, and some crazy visuals, that I found diluted the elements that others may find quite troubling. Again, as with so many of these tales, the conclusion won’t “come” as a surprise to anybody, but the root to it is, um, gripping.
Miscarriage from Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) is a total misfire in every way. Utterly boring and pure throwaway … if you’ll pardon the pun (well, you need to see the short, but the clue is in the title). I like West’s films, but he is very definitely overrated and has yet to deliver anything fully satisfying. I was impressed by House, but completely bewildered by the adulation that the fright-less Innkeepers received. I have reviewed them both previously. This is a hopeless waste of time that is, doubtlessly, supposed to play on the perceived notion of the maternal power of life and death. West says he wanted to provide a cerebral gross-out. But what he delivers is pure rubbish.
Nuptials from Banjong Pisathanakun (Shutter) is just a gag. But it’s a good one. Imagine Monty Python’s Parrot-sketch with the bird still alive and doing all the talking. Oh, and throw in a deadly secret and a big carving knife. To be blunt, we don’t actually need the payoff to this one, as the scenario works much better as an out-and-out embarrassing sit-com.
Orgasm from Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet (Amer) has an exquisitely gorgeous woman, played by Manon Beuchot, reaching the titular point of ecstasy (the death-spasm) via some oral pleasure that, ignited by a seriously arty-farty array of sensual imagery to depict her innermost sensations, turns rather more nasty than she intended. To be honest, this is merely the finale of Libido stretched out for longer, and with the outcome reversed. All style, no substance, I’m sorry to say. Fair bit of nudity, though.
Pressure from Simon Rumley (Red, White & Blue) is the first of four Brit entries in the selection, and a good one it is too. Set in Surinam and revolving around a struggling mother who, like so many others, has been driven to prostitution in order to provide for herself and her kids, this hinges upon a horrible fetishism that will, at some point, have you tensing up in anger and trepidation. Bleak and sobering social observation. Not horror, though.
Quack from Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way To Die) is the cleverest of the lot, although out of 26 adventurous and experimental filmmakers dealing with an anthology about death, you WOULD expect at least one of them to come up with this idea. But Wingard, who also stars in it alongside his writer Simon Barrett, does it well with a fly-on-the-wall meta-doc style, a whopping big pair of breasts, a lucky duck and a great sense of wry humour. Excellently off-the-rails and something of a tonic to the rest of the heavy stuff.
Removedf rom Srdjan Spasojevic (A Serbian Film) is fine and perverse and weird and wonderful. I am quite a fan of A Serbian Film – even if I never want to see it again I can’t help but admire something that is so bold, courageous, ruthless and downright damaging – and this little vignette, which actually has some Clive Barker and David Cronenberg seething about in the moist soup of its skin-crawling DNA, is once again an intensely unpleasant allegory for a much greater atrocity. Some would say Spasojevic is just retooling the same anger and technique that he did to such notoriety before, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. There is a cute reference to The Man With No Name, but this is still a warped, compelling and horrifying tour de force that has hints of brilliance and is shot through with personal anger.
Speed from Jake West (Doghouse) is Tex-Mex, Grindhouse neo-exploitation with souped-up cars, a mighty flamethrower and hot chicks in tight PVC. Plus, it’s got a great bogeyman. But … it’s also just a little bit naff, when all said and done, and has a payoff that will make you groan out loud.
Toilet from Lee Hardcastle, who gained admittance to this alphabetty-spaghetti of splatter with this very short film,is like an anarchic, nightmarish, drug-induced vision from Nic Park. Claymation meets Rob Bottin! This is the second entry of a trio of consecutive UK tales, and the humour is very definitely grungy Brit gutter-level, and proud of it. A trip to the khazi can be a very dangerous thing … as this flesh-hungry lavatory reveals with a bloody, shape-shifting vengeance. This is the loo after The Thing has used it! Terrifically gory and imaginative, and highly entertaining, this is just superb. If anyone remembers Willie Rushton’s plasticene kids’ show, Trapdoor, this bloody thing was definitely down there beneath it. To be honest, the disc is probably worth it for this entry alone.
Unearthed from Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers) probably arrives with some degree of expectation. Wheatley almost did great things with Kill List, but delivered quality Brit black satire with Sightseers, and amusingly pretentious existentialism with A Field In England. This is shot first-person as a vampire is hauled from its grave and then pursued by desperate modern-day Van Helsing wannabes. Great to see Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley running through spooky woods again, and indulging in the old ultra-violence. This neat little thriller does the unimaginable … and actually puts a sincerely new spin on the age-old, cliché-ridden fang-story. I was reminded of the various attempts made to dispatch poor vampirised John Carson in the awesome Hammer classic, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter. Another definite highlight.
Vagitus (The Cry of a Newborn Baby) from Kaare Andrews (Altitude) is very ambitious indeed. Blend Robocop, Total Recall and Equilibrium with Logan’s Run, Demolition Man and District 9, and sprinkle a little bit of Children of Men over the top and, voila, you get something like this action-packed romp through a fascistic future Vancouver police state in which population-control is a bit more hard-line than a condom. Andrews packs a lot in here, really giving you value for money, but the action isn’t all that well handled. However, the lead character is another exquisitely gorgeous woman – Kyra Zagorsky – and she is ably supported by a punishing combat droid. Nice.
WTF! from Jon Schnepp (Metalocalypse). Right, remember when I said something along the lines that out of 26 adventurous and experimental filmmakers given this task, you would expect at least one of them to come up with a certain idea? Yeah … well, these guys did too. The meta-wall comes crashing down, quite literally, after a fabulously animated breast-slicing intro reveals that the makers of the short really need to find something decent beginning with W to fulfill their part of the deal. And then things get really mental. Personally, I would have preferred them to have stuck with the original animated fantasy, and just slapped a great big W on it, regardless. That would have satisfied me.
XXL from Xavier Gens (Frontiers, Hitmen). Well, after the ferocity of Frontiers, Gens goes for the gut again as we take an unpleasant walk in the heaving boots of a super-fat woman (Sissi Duparc) who simply cannot take any more of the abuse she receives from everyone who sees her size. Haunted by a beautiful model (Yasmine Meddour) languishing in her sumptuous slimness on the TV, she takes matters into her own hands … and commences DIY removal of her doughy bits. Splendidly gruesome, but it is actually the montage of her filling her face beforehand that will turn your stomach the most.
Youngbuck from Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun) is a jaw-dropper, folks. It’s about pedophilia and its repercussions, but Eisener, unbelievably, shoots it like an 80’s pop video, sans dialogue and with a fantastic synth-score. The music track, Vengeance by Australian duo Power Glove (not the Boston-based rock group of the same name), is just fabulous – insanely catchy, like a pumped-up Tangerine Dream fused with Operation Wolf! The story features one of the most unpleasant antagonists seen on screen in recent memory, played quite courageously by Tim Dunn (who was also in Hobo With A Shotgun), and sports a sweat-licking sequence that will make your innards churn. I loved Hobo (see my review) and, even with such dark and dangerous material, Eisener proves to be an eminent and highly stylized talent. As troubling as it is, this is excellent and very cleverly done.
Zetsumetsu (Extinction) from Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) almost defies analysis. Loads of nudity, crazed sex ‘n’ death, blood and sushi. What more could you ask for? Oh, well, if you want me to be more specific … there’s a giant penis in here and a bombardment of fresh vegetables fired from a vagina in a glorious smackdown possibly depicting the global economy/food crisis. Or possibly not. And the giant penis is attached to a pneumatic-breasted Nazi bitch, by the way. There’s some nonsensical claptrap about racial hatred and persecution, a food-based liturgy on … something or other … and we see 9/11 depicted on a pair of jiggling boobies. Quite what it all means is up to you, but I loved the hell out of it.
Don’t go thinking that this runs for the full 123 mins – there’s over ten minutes of end credits. But they’re sporadically fun too, with the odd little message popping up from the individual filmmakers, as well as a highly charged, electro-spasmic death’s-head that is just too slow to be properly subliminal.
Despite some annoying misfires, this is frequently very entertaining. I can’t say just how rewatchable it all is because the best entries tend to be either disturbing or just plain demented. But the best of the bunch are definitely Dogfight, Toilet, Quack, Removed, Libido and, damn it … Youngbuck with that awesome Power Glove track. And a big special thank you and head-scratch goes out to Zetsumestsu! I know it’s a Z, but this one really does have WTF written all over it!
In closing, this isn’t really a statement about where modern horror is currently situated, simply because the majority of the filmmakers here used this opportunity to have fun and just go wild, so expect only minor revelations.
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