It’s almost inevitable to go into The ABC’s of Death with leery reservations. The anthology’s premise involves moviegoers sitting through 24 horror short films – each one involving a letter of the alphabet tying itself to the short’s climactic gruesome activity.
One immediate question pops to mind upon hearing this pitch: are audience members going to be too distracted from watching the movie by counting down each letter of the alphabet? Will we be reminding ourselves by thinking things like, “ok, now we’re on ‘H’. Only 16 letters to go.”?
For an anthology piece that’s as meaty as The ABC’s of Death, the film zips on by. The shorts may not all soar – or even take off – but before you know it, the halfway mark will arrive and it’ll only feel like the movie’s been playing for 15 minutes. Bravo to the multiple editors behind this ambitious project.
Moviegoers expecting character and story depth from the short films should look elsewhere. With the limited screen time each filmmaker has to grab the audience’s attention with the added goal of trying to quickly get to their standout kill, The ABC’s of Death definitely prefers style over substance.
Why it gets away with this otherwise cinematic no-no is because it seems as if each filmmaker has respected this fearsome code of conduct and are willing to work with it. It’s a challenge that they accept with a cutthroat attitude, and most of the creative minds are able to squeeze out very visceral – and sometimes very funny – results.
My personal favourite was Thomas Malling’s H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion, which is an X-rated live-action Looney Tunes cartoon with incredible make-up and costumes. It’s something artist Robert Crumb would be proud of.
My runners-up would be Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s inventive use of the letter ‘Q’ and the hilarious N is for Nuptials, directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and starring a dirty parrot.
However, not all the shorts are winners. What’s unacceptable are the shorts directed by obnoxious pot-stirrers that come across as graduates of The Human Centipede School of the Arts.
It’s fine to gingerly button push in order to generate squeamish reactions, but to be out right rude and crude makes your work seem inferior to the filmmakers that took this film as a serious challenge.
A lot of the “funny” and “absurd” shorts feel like they were hilarious to the cast and crew, but to no one else. They stew in toilet humour and disturbing behaviour in order to build some sort of rise out of viewers, but instead, come across as immature endurance tests driven by a pre-pubescent teenage boy’s libido.
Speaking of libido, that happens to be one of the worst shorts in The ABC’s of Death – L is for Libido directed by Timo Tjahjanto. Other sophomoric headaches include Ti West’s M is for Miscarriage, Noboru Iguchi’s F is for Fart, Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Z is for Zetsumetsu, and sadly Jason Eisener’s Y is for Youngbuck. Eisener’s feature film debut Hobo with a Shotgun was a tremendous, audacious thrill. His contribution to The ABC’s of Death is gross and embarrassing and, oddly, one of the few shorts that dabble in pedophilia.
Then, there are the in-betweens – ones that aren’t necessarily bad or good. There are a couple first-person shorts that are effective and haunting, but are hurt by a relentless shaky cameraman. There are also shorts that use either vague or broad words starting with their selected letter that feel a little too complicated. The kill or situation isn’t narrowed down enough and result in the viewer looking at the screen in confusion or disapproval. The filmmakers who keep their premise simple and straightforward end up helping the films that are the most memorable – like D’s dogfight or T’s toilet.
The ABC’s of Death is a textbook definition of a mixed bag. When it takes a couple strong steps forward, it follows up by taking a few steps backwards – and then follows that up with unexplained insanity. Despite the offensiveness and apparent flaws, nearly all of the shorts share something in common – impressive and gory practical effects. It’s more than enough to wet a gore hound’s whistle.