The ABCs of Death is another anthology of short horror films, albeit one with a decidedly different approach than the conventional collection of gore-stories. Produced by Ant Timpson and Tim League and released by Drafthouse films, it’s comprised of twenty-six shorts featuring directors from around the world, with each entry based on a letter of the alphabet. Instead of constraining the writers and directors by giving the anthology a central theme, they are only constrained by time — they were given 100% free reign in terms of the content of their film, but the films are short films in the truest sense with none being more than seven or so minutes long. Even so, the entire project is roughly two and a half hours long — an exhaustive undertaking even if they’re all winners.
They are not all winners, unfortunately. That’s not to say that there aren’t some good, even great, entries. But if you have the stamina to watch the entire string in one sitting, I’ll be impressed. Personally, it took me a couple of days and four or five sittings to get through it, both because my mind wandered, and also because it’s easier to digest and actually appreciate the entries if you don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed. That said, these little projects really do run the gamut of style, quality, and taste, and it’s hard to believe that there isn’t something for everybody to be found here. Of course, the likelihood that the converse is true, that you will like everything, is very unlikely. It ranges from the brilliant and clever, to the boring and stupid, to the disgusting and needlessly offensive.
But when it works, it works quite well: the very first entry, A Is For Apocalypse, sets the tone quite nicely, featuring a woman inexplicably trying over and over to kill a bedridden man, with the apocalypse as the backdrop. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes), it’s a curious and fascinating and occasionally disturbing piece. In fact, the first few are all pretty entertaining, twisted little stories. I particularly enjoyed the weird, mindbending cloning bit from C Is For Cycle, and the slasher sendup B Is For Bigfoot is remarkably both on-the-nose and wickedly clever.
There are also some terrible blunders, most notable F Is For Fart, a dumb, puerile tale that’s masked in a weird pretentiousness, considering it really is just about Japanese women farting. Don’t ask, and don’t bother. Immediately following it, G is for Gravity is a puzzling suicide depiction that is pretty to look at, but absolutely goes nowhere. Similarly pointless and silly is T Is For Toilet, a silly bit of children’s nightmare come to life that really didn’t affect me. Meanwhile, the painfully pretentious, wannabe erotic O Is For Orgasm tries desperately to titillate, but really was just something of a bore.
Those blunders, however, are nothing compared to some of the really egregiously awful bits, the worst of which are the prostitution/animal cruelty tale of P Is For Pressure and the truly disturbing and unpleasant L Is For Libido. The former begins interestingly enough as a tale of a desperate and destitute woman trying to care for her children, but it ends in a pointlessly schlocky shock vignette involving pets (something that is actually handled far more viscerally yet intelligently in the silent D Is For Dogfight). L Is For Libido is an absolutely skin-crawlingly vile (and I don’t mean in a good way, horror-movie-wise) tale of torture that includes, among other things, the Crash-like sexualization of amputees followed by men masturbating while watching a child get raped. Yes, you read that correctly. Soapboxing about that particular entry is needless, because that’s exactly what the filmmakers likely are looking for. Suffice it to say that it was a sad, awful, infuriating viewing experience that I wish I could scrub from my memory. It was unquestionably one of the worst cinematic experiences I’ve ever had, and almost made me abandon the entire endeavor.
Yet there are some honest to goodness gems to be found in the mix as well. The animated K Is For Klutz takes the same type of crass humor that F Is For Fart tried to sublimate and made it work, creating a weird and funny bit of bathroom horror. Also bitingly clever was H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion, a bizarre combination of grindhouse Nazi exploitationism mixed with strippers and humans with animal heads. You really need to see it to believe it. Writer/Director Ben Wheatley’s Unearthed is a short, twisted horror classic. My personal favorite goes to Joe Swanberg’s Q Is For Quack, a giggle-inducing bit of meta-filmmaking that really packs a sharp, sly punch. I generally don’t enjoy Swanberg and his mumblecore ilk (particularly considering how much I disliked his last anthology entry in V/H/S), but he satirizes himself effectively here.
The ABCs of Death is far from a consistently great film, but there’s certainly enough in it that works to make it worth a look. The biggest problem will be slogging through the lesser efforts — not to mention the downright horrible ones — in order to find the ones you’ll enjoy. There are some diamonds buried deep in the rough though, and given that this is a compendium assembled by mostly-unknown film makers, it will be interesting to see which of them eventually evolve into regulars in the genre. In that sense it sometimes feels a little too student film-ish at times, but it can still occasionally provide some solid laughs and scares.