Written by: Various
Directed by: Various
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“None of this is working."
"It's a fucking disaster."
"It's a fucking disaster."
Not that anyone really cares about my wardrobe, but I’ve had a t-shirt for The ABCs of Death sitting in my closet for over two years now. It’s gone unworn all that time because a man can’t just endorse a film like that without seeing it first. So in the interest of wanting to add a shirt to my rotation and because this is supposed to be a reputable horror site, I’ve finally caught up with this audacious anthology, which pools together a staggering collection of international talent for a deranged orgy of sex, violence, and laughs. You know, just another day at the office for this splat pack.
By now, this infamous omnibus’s hook is well-known, as it gathers 26 genre personalities and tasks each with directing a short film based on a letter of the alphabet. According to the introduction (which also acts as a disclaimer), these talents were only given one parameter: each short must tackle death. Other than that, they were given carte blanche to accomplish the goal, and it shows because The ABCS of Death is one of the most eclectic anthologies of all time. Exhibiting a total disregard for aesthetic unity, the film proceeds ahead like a discordant symphony or perhaps like the most fucked-up box of acid-laced chocolates Forrest Gump ever encountered. You never know what you’re going to get—only that it’s likely to be inappropriate and pushing the boundaries of bad taste.
Just how we like it, right? I suppose. It’s sort of appropriate that one of the early segments involves a bedtime story that becomes gleefully darker as it’s told because the entire film feels driven by the participants’ collective need to outdo one another, sort of like a bunch of juvenile kids sitting around the campfire. Considering the random nature of the endeavor, it’s amazing that it manages to build up to such a frenzy; just when you think you’ve seen the best (or worst?) it has to offer, here comes something else that’s even weirder or more disturbing. And the weirdest part is how fun it ends up being since each entry almost feels like a game inviting you to guess what the letter is going to stand for: some (like “D is for Dogfight” and “T is for Toilet”) are obvious, while others end up feeling like a punchline.
It’s an interesting experience, to say the least. Like most anthologies, this features a wide range in quality, but the worst that can be said about some of the segments is that they’re just sort of forgettable and drowned out by the louder, more outlandish bits surrounding them. Some--like Nacho Vigolondo’s opener, for example—benefit from good placement; when given the chance to kick off the festivities, Vigolondo does so with gusto. His is the sort of film where a hacked-up body only serves as a prelude to the apocalypse. Somehow, that ends up feeling time by the time you’ve endured this procession of carnage.
In the interest of brevity (for once), let’s just hit some of the highlights. Contrary to what I’ve been saying, some of the shorts do show a bit of restraint and seek to unsettle psychologically: Ernesto Diaz Espinoza’s “C is for Cycle” features a nifty, time-bending premise, while Andrew Traucki’s “G is for Gravity” is one of the more cryptic offerings. Delivered entirely via a POV shot of a surfer, the film impressively finds terror in the open, desolate sea and little more. The most enigmatic short arrives courtesy of Bruno Forzani and Héléne Cattet, the duo behind Amer. Their “O is for Orgasm” is a sensual, surreal journey into what feels like an S&M episode—it’s sort of interesting that they’ve highlighted the ethereal, spiritual pleasures of such a physical activity.
Of course, you’ve also got your balls-out, gore-laden episodes, such as Xavier Gens’s “X is for XXL,” a stunningly visceral look at the horrors perpetrated by society’s conception of the female body image. Let’s just say it’s an even more brutal take on Thinner. There’s lots of other squirm-inducing stuff here, some of which had me actually peeking through my fingers a bit. Srdjan Spasojevic’s (A Serbian Film) “R is for Removed” features some particularly grotesque mutilation, and Jorge Michel Grau’s “I is for Ingrown” is positively skin-crawling. With the exception of a few episodes, most of the gore throughout the film is nicely practical and splattery, and there’s even some clever gags (like the one in “U is for Unearthed,” which seems to capture a vampire’s staking from the bloodsucker’s POV).
Some of the segments are quite glib and aim to deliver macabre instances of humor. Among the most clever is “Q is for Quack,” which finds Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett at a loss for what to do with their odd letter. It’s a meta-episode that serves as a fine reminder that you should follow these two of Twitter, where they’re even funnier. Other humorous highlights include “K is for Klutz,” an animated episode involving a particularly stubborn piece of shit that refuses to be flushed. And if that isn’t enough toilet humor for you, “T for Toilet” is a Claymation bit that Freud would have enjoyed, what with its bowel-related childhood trauma and toilet demons. However, the best joke might be the fact that Ti West’s segment (“M is for Miscarriage”) is the shortest of the bunch and gets straight to the point—this after he’s built a career on slow-burn horror (that’s probably the only way his short can be seen as a joke—it’s actually one of the most grim in the collection).
Then there’s the stuff that feels like it’s being put on like total fucking psychopaths. There’s a segment titled “W is for WTF,” but that sentiment could easily apply to any number of other segments (the “W” one is another meta-take where the creators try to figure out what material to tackle, and it winds up creating a psychotronic maelstrom of horror imagery—werewolves, giant walruses, you know). No subject seems to be too taboo, either, as Jason Eisner’s contribution, “Y is for Young Buck,” features a leering middle school janitor who engages in inappropriate activities with the students and gets his blood-soaked, deer-horned comeuppance for it. Similarly leaving no inappropriate stone left unturned is Timo Tjahjanto, whose “L is for Libido” left me fearing for the psyche of its director. Centered on a sick, underground game involving two male contestants engaging in competitive masturbation, the short goes to some disturbing, dark, and uncomfortable places—and yet still found a way to be loony and glib about it all.
The ABCs of Death is a global effort, featuring entries from fifteen countries; however, I’m not sure if any country came as strong as Japan, whose various efforts here do very little to dispel the notion that the Land of the Rising Sun is a very bizarre place, so it’s earned its own corner of praise here. Each of its shorts is bizarre in their own unique way and seemingly work to highlight bits of the country’s culture, such as its weird fetish with schoolgirls in “F is for Fart,” an offbeat aside involving the apocalypse and the beauty of farts. “J is for Jidai-geki” is a demented, feverish samurai tale involving a particularly trippy instance of seppuku. None are as intensely nutty as the anthology’s closer, though. Delivered courtesy of Yoshihiro Nishimura, “Z is for Zetsumestu” is a heady little number that examines Japan’s preoccupation with game shows and its complicated clashes with Western culture. A largely metaphorical episode driven by stark, stylish images, this finale also doubles as a coda for the entire collection, as it reflects the film’s aim to confound, disturb, and entertain through sheer force of will.
Ultimately, it wills itself into your consciousness; just looking back over this review, I found well over half of the entries to be memorable in some way, which is a pretty good batting average. And this is not the mention the refuse that I just couldn’t find space for—hell, that might be the most ringing endorsement I can give it: The ABCs of Death is the sort of film where a segment involving anthropomorphic Nazi dogs only gets a cursory mention. It’s the sort of film where the director of A Serbian Film’s contribution is just another float in the procession. It’s the sort of film where you could debate the merits of various toilet-related shorts. Actually, the end credits describe it well enough, where it’s called “a nightmare by, Ant Timpson,” who produced alongside other champions of cult cinema (like the Drafthouse gang headed by Tim League). With a sequel on the way, I suppose Timpson has suffered from more restless nights, but he can rest comfortably with the knowledge that The ABCs of Death is a triumphant collection of the sordid, the macabre, and the deranged. Oh, and I totally have a new t-shirt I can wear. Buy it!
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