The ABCs of Death

Editors’ note: With The ABCs of Death arriving in theaters this week, here is a re-run of our own Luke Mullen’s review of the film from Fantastic Fest, originally published on September 30, 2012.

The brainchild of Ant Timpson and Tim League, The ABCs of Death sounds like a great idea: let’s bring some of the smartest up-and-coming genre directors together to create 26 separate short films, each based on a letter from the alphabet. If it sounds ambitious, that’s an understatement. Wrangling that many short films from so many different filmmakers in so many different countries couldn’t have been easy, but things finally came together and buzz was pretty high when we finally sat down to see it at Fantastic Fest.

It’s hard to describe the experience of watching 26 different shorts in the space of two hours. There’s not really a sense of tone since each short is so different, but there does at least seem to be some sense of pacing due to the grouping of stories. Things start off well with three Spanish-language shorts from Nacho Vigalondo, Adrian Garcia Bogliano, and Ernesto Diaz Espinoza. Then Marcel Sarmiento‘s “D is for Dogfight” impresses in a big way and expectations are high. From there, it’s a rollercoaster ride with shorts ranging from pretty good to forgettable, culminating in Ti West‘s awful “M is for Miscarriage.” The second half features far more good than bad, but “Z” is so incredibly awful that it almost sours the whole experience.

The biggest problem is that the bad is so bad that it affects the enjoyment of the good. Looking back over the list there are far more good to great shorts than there are bad. It’s just a situation where the whole is actually less than the sum of the parts. Initially, my overall impression was negative, but on review I found a lot more to like about it. Maybe my experience can serve as a warning for you. If you can adjust your expectations to try and forget the bad more quickly than I did, you may well end up with a far more enjoyable experience.

Here are ten segments that I liked in alphabetical order:

“E is for Exterminate” – Actress Angela Bettis directed this great story of man versus spider. The fact that I am personally terrified of spiders probably upped the scare factor tenfold for me, and while others may not be tempted to cover their eyes, they can still appreciate the well-crafted cat and mouse game on display. The CG on the spider is surprisingly good for such a low-budget affair, and the end is fantastic.

“D is for Dogfight” – It’s funny that director Marcel Sarmiento, whose previous Fantastic Fest entry, Deadgirl, was less than good, has managed to craft what is easily the best short of the entire film. The story of man against beast takes a hard left turn at the end, turning the tables on the villains in an awesome way. The beautiful slo-mo photography coupled with a sure hand in both direction and editing make this segment truly stand above all the rest.

“H is for Hyrdo-Electric Diffusion” – A live action version of a Tex Avery cartoon, complete with Nazis, makes “H” a lot of fun. Thomas Cappelen Malling, the director of Norwegian Ninja, brings his typically silly and over the top style, and it fits like a glove. One of the funnier entries in the film, “H” doesn’t disappoint.

“N is for Nuptials” – Thai horror director Banjong Pisanthanakun keeps things light with “N is for Nuptials.” When a man brings a talking bird home, his girlfriend is a little concerned about keeping it. But she warms when the man shows her that the bird can speak and has the bird propose to her for him. Unfortunately and hilariously, the bird just can’t seem to keep its mouth shut.

“O is for Orgasm” – Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet, the duo behind the neo-giallo Amer, utilize their giallo inclinations to describe the feelings and emotions behind the female orgasm. The issues working against Amer are all fixed here, and “O is for Orgasm” features a great match of director(s), style, and subject. There’s such an ineffable quality to orgasm that describing those feelings in a non-narrative collection of beautiful images and sounds is simply perfect. The fact that it features a man performing oral sex on a woman is an interesting contrast in a genre that typically features sexuality from the male perspective.

“Q is for Quack” – Writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard reunite for this meta short about making their ABCs of Death short. Doing a meta short like this is a dangerous proposition that can often backfire, but Barrett and Wingard are so likable and funny and put such a nice, unexpected twist on things that it totally works. Not quite on the level of filmmaking as “D” and “R,” “Q” is still one of the better filmed of all the shorts and a highlight in the second half.

“R is for Removed” – A Serbian Film director Srdjan Spasojevic showcases his trademark bluntness, incorporating scenes that very literally state subtext. Featuring a man, a prisoner, whose skin is our only source of celluloid, Spasojevic has hit on an amazingly creative way to portray struggle for the continued use of 35mm film and the inevitable outcome. Fascinating and Cronenbergian in it’s gooey body horror imagery, “R” is the the short that really stuck with me and had me thinking about it after the credits rolled.

“U is for Unearthed” – Fantastic Fest regular Ben Wheatley‘s entry is a cool POV-style short about townspeople — Brits o’course — hunting down and killing a monster. Shown completely from the monster’s perspective, “U” is perhaps more highly stylized filmmaking than we’ve previously seen from Wheatley.

“X is for XXL” – French director Xavier Gens tackles the difficult subject of female body image and all the insults and snickering that plus size women experience, both from others and from their own consciousness. As a larger woman makes her way home in Paris, it seems as if everyone is taking the opportunity to laugh and point. Whether that’s meant to be taken literally or as what the poor girl imagines everyone to be thinking is up for debate, but it’s the consequences, not the cause, of her low self esteem that are the point of this short. One of the more thoughtful entries, “X” is nonetheless brutal and doesn’t skimp on the blood and gore.

“Y is for Young Buck” – Jason Eisener, the crazy madman behind Hobo with a Shotgun, created this dirty, gritty segment about a creepy old janitor in an elementary or middle school whose obsession with young boys is less than healthy. While there’s no context for why the janitor was teaching one boy how to hunt with a bow and arrow, that knowledge comes in pretty handy when the boy decides to enact his revenge.

And here are the five segments that I didn’t care for:

“I is for Ingrown” – Jorge Michel Grau, perhaps best known for last year’s family horror film We Are What We Are, contributed “I is for Ingrown,” which is well-shot and interesting but ultimately confusing and jumbled. The voice-over doesn’t seem to match the events on screen and the “slice of a bigger story” style doesn’t give us nearly enough context for the man, the woman in the tub or the unknown substance in the hypodermic needle to be able to appreciate the story. “I” is legitimately a missed opportunity.

“M is for Miscarriage” – Ti West’s entry barely qualifies as a short. It certainly doesn’t deserve the moniker “film.” Some will say that the issues taken with West’s entry are people taking offense to the idea of a woman having a miscarriage that clogs her toilet. I have no problem with that. My problem is that West clearly didn’t take it seriously, so why should I? It’s around two or three minutes max, poorly shot and framed with a partial fetus that looks more like West dumped some leftover Chinese food in the toilet, covered it with red food coloring and swished it around a bit. It’s heartbreaking to watch such a talented filmmaker being so clearly and unbelievably lazy. It almost reads as a middle finger to anyone involved with or watching the film.

“P is for Pressure” – Simon Rumley‘s “P” follows a prostitute trying to make more money to buy her daughter a birthday present. It’s an interesting concept, but it’s completely undone by its uneven tone. After a robbery saps her savings, she’s “forced” to act in a film where she kills a kitten by crushing its skull with her stiletto. It’s ugly and awful, but it’s her happy reaction in the next scene that really makes the previous sequence hard to take. At least a small moment of emotional conflict or remorse over the death of something so innocent would have made this more palatable, but Rumley refuses us that, instead making us unsure of the thoughts, feelings and motivations of his lead right at the end of his short. The result is muddled and frustrating.

“W is for WTF” – Metalocalypse mastermind Jon Schnepp‘s “W” is the perfect example of when a meta short goes wrong. While Barrett and Wingard created humor by making fun of themselves, poking fun at other entries and ultimately writing a great twist, Schnepp seems content to film his conference room and throw bad After Effects images at you as the world ends from absurd randomness. It’s cloying and humorless and just comes off as lazy.

“Z is for” … whatever word means “shitty” in Japanese – I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the intended audience for this short. Sushi Typhoon films have a very particular shtick and, with a very few exceptions, I am just not a fan. I fully recognize that some people are, and if you are one of them, “Z” could very well be your wet dream. It takes everything that you either hate or love about Sushi Typhoon — randomness, offensiveness, giant inflatable penises — and quite literally makes soup out of them. Boring, unfunny and far too long, “Z” is a terrible note for the film to end on.

Ultimately, even though my post-theater reaction was mostly negative, I’ve found that I enjoyed a lot more of these shorts than I thought, well over half in fact. There’s some truly great filmmaking, “D” and “R” being my two favorites. The ABCs of Death is far from perfect but, with the right expectations, it can be fun to watch.

The Upside: “D is for Dogfight” is stunning and the clear frontrunner of the group. “R is for Remover” is visceral, literal and simply fascinating, “Q” is funny and well-shot.

The Downside: Ti West’s “M is for Miscarriage” is almost insulting in its laziness, “Z” is ridiculous and others are just plain bad.

On the Side: The cut I saw was the final cut that screened in Toronto. Fest-goers who saw the first screening saw an older cut due to a snafu. The newer cut had some shorts’ letters switched, presumably for pacing reasons. Notable changes include “Y is for Yeti” becoming “B is for Bigfoot” and “N is for Nature” becoming “Y is for Young Buck.”

Grade: B


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