The ABCs of Death Review
Posted by Chad Webb on 03.08.2013
D is for Dud, M is for Misfire….take your pick.
Produced By: Ant Timpson and Tim League
Distributed By: Magnet Releasing
VOD Release Date: January 31, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: March 8, 2013
Running Time: 129 minutes
Written By: Kaare Andrews, Angela Bettis, Adrián García Bogliano, Bruno Forzani, Hélène Cattet, Ernesto Díaz Espinoza, Jason Eisener, Xavier Gens, Jorge Michel Grau, Lee Hardcastle, Noboru Iguchi, Thomas Cappelen Malling, Anders Morgenthaler, Yoshihiro Nishimura, Banjong Pisanthanakun, Simon Rumley, Marcel Sarmiento, Jon Schnepp, Srdjan Spasojevic, Timo Tjahjanto, Andrew Traucki, Nacho Vigalondo, Jake West, Ti West, Ben Wheatley, Adam Wingard, Yudai Yamaguchi
Nacho Vigalondo: A
Adrian Garcia Bogliano: B
Ernesto Diaz Espinoza: C
Marcel Sarmiento: C
Angela Bettis: E
Noboru Iguchi: F
Andrew Traucki: G
Thomas Malling: H
Jorge Michel Grau: I
Yudai Yamaguchi: J
Anders Morgenthaler: K
Timo Tjahjanto: L
Ti West: M
Banjong Pisanthanakun: N
Bruno Forzani & Hélène Cattet: O
Srdjan Spasojevic: P
Jake West: S
Lee Hardcastle: T
Ben Wheatley: U
Kaare Andrews: V
Jon Schnepp: W
Xavier Gens: X
Jason Eisner: Y
Yoshihiro Nishimura: Z
Just the pitch itself is intriguing. Take 26 chapters and assign different directors (spanning 15 countries) a letter of the alphabet. They must then choose a word and a story relating to death and concoct a short film based around that. They were given $5,000 to carry this out. The three caveats: keep it brief, include at least one death, and show red at the beginning and end. What happens when these shorts are combined into one anthology feature? Well, in the case of The ABCs of Death the result has the cons vastly outweighing the pros. The majority are terrible, uninventive pieces of garbage. A few of them are humorous and fascinating. Others are so incredibly bizarre and acid-trip insane that my description of them would not come close to the experience of watching it on your own.
When I reviewed Paris, je t’aime, an anthology effort about love, I listed the title of each segment, its directors, the basic premise, and then wrote about the film in general without revealing too much. The ABCs of Death is more difficult in that the word associated with each letter is not displayed until the end of the short, thus listing each one would spill the beans on everything. Many of the shorts rely on the viewer not knowing what the word will be, hoping to induce a surprise when it pops up. I will not go into detail about each letter, but I can’t outright ignore them either, so I will have to divulge a handful. To put it bluntly, this article will contain spoilers. If you wish to be kept in the dark, do not read any further.
There is no glue holding the shorts together or overarching tale, simply disclosing the word for that letter and then moving onto the next story. The opening credits do show us a floor with blocks being covered in blood, but that’s about it. I understand why critics almost inevitably judge omnibus offerings as a mixed bag: the pieces do not add up to a satisfying whole, some segments are better than others, etc. Another complaint I hear is that the characters do not have enough time to be fleshed out. That isn’t as much of a factor here since we rarely care about the characters. We just want to see how people will die. It’s like Final Destination without the backwards logic. The problem is, that franchise is twice as creative as most of the experiments in The ABCs of Death. Sad, but true.
The writers and directors were given free reign in terms of content and tone. Consequently, there is no consistency throughout, which makes the shifts from deadly serious to darkly comical and all the variations thereof jarring. At times you’re not sure whether to laugh or be disgusted. The strange reality about this is that even those shorts you feel are worthy of a recommendation will not spring to mind as quickly as those horrible ones that are so crazy and/or stupid that they linger in your memory no matter what you do to extricate them. Take the letter “M” for example, a lazily constructed short that is pointless except for the final zoom in shot that literally hinges on what the word is. Calling this "disturbing" is fitting. Think along the lines of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. This came from Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), one of the well-known directors of the bunch. Jason Eisner (Hobo with a Shotgun) also contributes in the distasteful "Young Buck."
One prevailing trend as they all unravel is that the Japanese filmmakers are nuts. There is no suitable way to articulate that sentiment. If you were hoping that “F” did not stand for “Fart,” you will be disappointed. I’m no stranger to peculiar, sick, or twisted movies like The Human Centipede II or Salo, nor older anthology features such as Creepshow, Tales from the Crypt, and so on. But Noboru Iguchi's (The Machine Girl) “F” is one of the most bizarre shorts I have ever seen, second only to “Z” for “Zetsumetsu” (Extinction). In “F,” a Japanese girl questions the existence of God because he should not allow sensitive girls to fart. Her flatulence is detected by a teacher, Ms. Yumi, whom she establishes romantic feelings for. Soon an earthquake occurs and a gas is released into the air, which the girl describes as a “fart from the ass of God.” She prepares to die, but requests to do so while smelling Ms. Yumi’s fart, which is yellow. The girl then appears to get sucked into Ms. Yumi’s butt and is then naked in her fart gas. Yeah. One wonders what sort of person conjured this idea and you know…why.
Knowing the stint was basically carte blanche, it's amazing how many are similar, dealing with bodily fluids and bathroom comedy. Not every one is as sophomoric and crude. Many that ultimately fail do possess an underlying message, social commentary, or theme, but are not able to present it clearly enough in the allocated time. This applies to Kaare Andrews’ (Altitude) short for “V” and Jorge Michel Grau’s (We Are What We Are) “I” among others. Some are just obvious and pointless, like Andrew Traucki’s (The Reef) “G is for Gravity” or “O is for Orgasm” from Amer directors Bruno Forzani & Helene Cattet. The latter goes overboard with the symbolism and comes off as extremely pretentious. The impact of the word changes according to the director. It can be easily apparent from the aforementioned “Orgasm,” or used as a punch line like in “K,” a shocking twist as in “M,” or to emphasize the point of the script as in the disproportionate “P.” It is all extremely uneven, and that flaw is not just limited to the varying degrees of quality, but several components.
Marcel Sarmiento’s (Deadgirl) “Dogfight,” which has no dialogue (only music) and is annoyingly all in slow-motion will stand out. This was clever, but the fact that Sarmiento attempted to balance style and substance caused the two to clash. I'm anxious to see what Sarmiento does down the road. Adam Wingard (You’re Next) and Simon Barret are the unfortunate duo stuck with “Q,” which chooses the self-aware, cop-out mockumentary. It’s not the only short that makes fun of the proposal, and I admit it was amusing initially, but still lifeless. The wildly unusual mixture of methods are exacting to process. Though it may sound silly, anthologies should have a firm sense of cohesiveness. The chapters that rely on shallow artifice and trickery will make our eyes roll, but those which give new meaning to “thinking outside the box” toss us in the opposite direction. The “off the wall” ideas give us hope, but tend to leave us scratching our heads, confused as to what the hell the filmmaker was going for, such as the human-esque animals and Nazi imagery in Thomas Malling’s (Norwegian Ninja) “H” short. Frighteningly, that reminded me of Howard the Duck.
Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) is handed the task of "A," which is a healthy amount of pressure because that must get the audience started. His short stirred numerous emotions and was passable, but increasingly odd. With any motion picture of this ilk, you will have your favorite pieces. Angela Bettis' "E" for "Exterminate" follows a man trying to get rid of a spider in his home. One of the gorier entries that I enjoyed was Xavier Gens' (Hitman) "XXL," which is incredibly graphic, yet integrates a commentary about our obsession with body image. Banjong Pisanthanakun (Shutter, Alone) delivers "N," which is funny, sweet, and smart. Not every installment is live-action. U.K. director Lee Hardcastle won a contest to submit a film and supplied the goofily entertaining lesson of "T" in claymation. There is a hand-drawn animated short for "K," which involves toilet humor and is as juvenile as it gets. The goal no doubt was to use the cartoon angle for credit points. Timo Tjahjanto's (Macabre) "L" is simultaneously intelligent and demented as two males are forced to masturbate as a sport to death. Whoever ejaculates first, wins. The intent here was to connect masturbation and horror violence. It's hard not to laugh. Jake West's (Doghouse) "S" stands for "Speed" and is actually quite unpredictable and compelling in a twisted way.
The few episodes that are effective in The ABCs of Death manage to accomplish the task assigned while also discovering a genuinely sharp idea and taking it all the way. Too many of the directors did not have a clue how to construct a short film. They either didn't try at all, or concentrated their exertions in the wrong place. The bulk of the shorts are a combination of uninspired, dumb, or forgettable. The people that understood what one entailed and how to compact everything into a small period were successful, the rest were disasters, including the "how deranged can we be?" motif. "Z" will be impossible to shake from your memory, but what should we expect from the maker of Meatball Machine and Tokyo Gore Police. In terms of acting, it is hard for any performer to make an impression, but Sarah Bonrepaux is terrific in "XXL." I applaud The ABCs of Death for its boldness, but the amount of freedom the directors had, in turn, damaged the movie overall. At its heart, this is about life coming to an end, and it's too meaningless. However, it is easy to watch and likely the viewing will go better if you're with friends who appreciate sick, moronic horror, but even casual fans of the genre will be left unfulfilled, wanting more.
The 411: The poster for The ABCs of Death caught my eye long ago and I delayed in watching it On Demand until I noticed the theatrical release approaching. I generally enjoy anthology films. They go quick and can be a fun and creative way for a director to showcase their talents. That happens a quarter of the time in this flick. The other 75% is horrendous, a jerky mishmash of idiocy, unimaginative ideas, and flat-out failures of execution. You will notice that some of the filmmakers supplied segments for V/H/S as well. I can’t recommend The ABCs of Death unless you have an affinity for bad horror. I thought the premise was intriguing, but did not come close to living up to its potential. A handful of the shorts were solid and some of the directors could go on to successful careers. I wonder about the future of some of the others. It has become cliché to say so, but this is indeed a mixed bag, and most of that bag is rotten to the core.