Review for The ABCs of Death
“We Yellow People Love Tangerines...”
Anthology films present numerous difficulties, something that is often extremely evident in collaborative efforts. Simply put, not every contributor can always be expected to be on the same wave-length, or deliver work that compliments someone. It's a gamble, and one that historically, struggles to pay off.
The recent success of the mixed bag, V/H/S however, has shown that the horror genre is still perfectly ripe for being exploited in this form, and an audience for it still exists. V/H/S was an extremely uneven effort itself, highlighted by David Bruckner's incredible short; Amateur Night, and Joe Swanberg's unnerving The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger. But it was also let down by a disappointing wrap-around story, and interminable contributions from Ti West and Glen McQuaid. The follow up, V/H/S 2 also demonstrates the difficulty in achieving a fine balance. The modern portmanteau it seems, could do with taking influence from the genre classic, Mario Bava's Black Sabbath, or even one of Amicus Studios' impressive entries.
Still, boasting a gargantuan line-up of talent, The ABCs of Death arrived with much promise, a sense of freedom, and the promise of plentiful grisly & provocative action in equal measure. Supposedly inspired by educational books for kids, the film consists of twenty-six short films, each representing a letter. Hence, we get D is For Dogfight, T is for Toilet, and so on. Sound concept, impressive line-up, couldn't fail, right?
Unfortunately, it does fail to live up to that promise.
First things first; The ABCs of Death is not a typical Portmanteau horror. Instead, it's two hours of entirely unconnected shorts that vary in length, subject matter, and tone. Several, could barely be regarded as "horror" at all, while some are truly horrible indeed.
Obviously, the stories are told alphabetically, thus we begin with A is for Apocalypse, by Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo. It's an amusing, if inauspicious start, centered around digital effects. The next two entries inspire little confidence in the collection, falling very flat indeed. It's only with D is for Dogfight, that proceedings pick up. Directed by Marcel Sarmiento (Director of the little seen but thought provoking, Deadgirl), this is a brutal tale of a pugilist scrapping with a vicious dog in an underground blood fight. Shot largely in sumptuous slow-motion, there's an obvious twist of sorts at work here, but the success of the piece comes from the beautifully lit dirge of the setting ,and luscious camerawork.
Immediately however, Angela Bettis' E is for Exterminate plunges the film into mediocrity. Poorly shot and with a horrendously inept digital spider, this ineffective skin-crawler immediately takes the overall film down a notch. It struggles to return as well. Some may find humour in Noburu Iguchi's F is for Fart, but others will simply find this tale of illicit lesbian love and ass-gas to be interminable. At least it stands out though. There's a real sense of pointlessness to contributions from Andrew Traucki, Jorge Michel Grau, Jidai-Geki, and in the banal, W is for WTF! For many, the tolerance of which will indeed depend very much on individual taste.
The big names have a lot to answer for here, serving up a mis-mash of material. As with his installment of V/H/S, Ti West's contribution (M is for Miscarriage) is utterly risible, and counts among one of the least inventive of the bunch. West should be ashamed of his lazy, incompetent effort. Yoshihiro Nishimura's Zetsumetsu is a barmy, brainless climax, that would have worked better if it didn't have to end the whole film. Following two hours of varying degrees of excess, the overkill and outright stupidity is all too obvious.
Elsewhere, there are interesting contributions from Banjong Pisathanakun (N is for Nuptials), Thomas Malling (H is for Hydro Electric Diffusion; an utterly bonkers live-action nazi incarnation of Looney Tunes), that stand as fine pieces of filmmaking, but reside very awkwardly in this compilation. Simon Rumley's P is for Pressure is a brilliant piece, but also does not work at all in this context. Worse, K is for Klutz, is a risible animation about a lady defecating and being unable to rid herself of said log.
There are other gems however. Bruno Forzani & Helene Cattet's O is for Orgasm is as visually breathtaking as their astonishing neo-Giallo, Amer was. Adam Wingard redeems himself for V/H/S with some delicious humour that pokes fun at the whole enterprise, while Xavier Gens provides a fittingly gory sequence with his tale of an overweight woman losing weight in a novel fashion. Of all the films here, this may be the most affecting, strongest piece.
The UK is well represented by the hilarious T is For Toilet by the unique Lee Hardcastle, and also good efforts from Ben Wheatley and Jake West.
Meanwhile, A Serbian Film creator/L'Enfant terrible, Srdjan Spasojevic serves up R is for Removed, a dialogue-free fest of violence that both looks good, and feels like proper horror. Meanwhile, the film you would have perhaps imagined Spasojevic directing, L is for Libido, is the most controversial of the bunch. A truly disturbing short featuring a man competing against a series of others in a twisted masturbation contest, this unsettles and disgusts before delivering a vicious punch to the gut that is difficult to justify.
The best is saved for (almost) last, in the exhilarating, if queasy form of Jason Eisener's Y is for Youngbuck. The helmsman behind Hobo With a Shotgun takes the uncomfortable subject of child abuse/Perversion, and has here transformed it into a pulsating revenge tale of sort. Unsavoury yes, but superbly realised, and complete with a driving electronic score. This is a really unique short picture, that perfectly draws a line under the strong points and weaknesses evident in The ABCs of Death, in all its ungainly, bloated and at times, compelling glory.
Extras come in the form of short featurettes, outtakes or interviews, and one in case, a Photo Gallery. These obviously vary wildly in terms of quality, and content. For example "A" takes us behind the scenes of Apocalypse's decent digital FX. It's a useless glimpse though, simply replaying the footage a couple of times with examples of inserting the CGI. Likewise, the "B" behind the scenes piece is a rubbish assortment of shots of the crew, accompanied by music. It's the sort of lazy inclusion that adds absolutely nothing to the experience. The section on I is for Ingrown suffers similarly, and although a great deal more effort is made to string it together, it's ultimately a joyless exercise viewing random behind the scenes footage of crew members jostling with equipment.
Others, such as F is for Fart, are a little better, at least including the directions actors were given, thus providing a little more insight towards the process. The Making of Dogfight is one of the best, as it demonstrates how the dog of the title was trained for the role, as well as offering some gruesome peeks of the traditional make up process.
There's even more effort put into a section dedicated to Thomas Malling's barmy movie, nicely taking us through various processes, although a voiceover would have improved much of this immensely. Meanwhile, the extras on W is for WTF are better than the short itself.
Lee Hardcastle's retrospective on the filming of T is for Toilet is among the best extras, a witty chat in his studio that reveals many of his claymation secrets. This is one of the few that although brief, helps make the special features package just about worthwhile.
An interview with Simon Rumley is another brief glimmer of what should have been focused upon, especially given that his piece is one of the most ill-fitting but arresting inclusions. All of these directors, for all their faults, have been pulled together for an honorably ambitious project. Regardless of the outcome, it would have been fascinating to hear more from the parties involved, and the process behind why they chose each subject.
The package does include an overall look at the picture with comments from several participants, but at four minutes, it's merely a worthless fluff piece. Lots of extras then, but again, something of a chore to reach the high-points.
This is as uneven a compendium of stories that one could ever imagine. If there is one consistent theme however, it is in the nauseating adherence to toilet humour exhibited throughout. It seems that largely, none of the participants are able to resist a cheap disgusting joke. Subtle, this is not.
The bigger problem with the movie though, isn't that many of the segments are poor; as at least half are very watchable, and half-a-dozen are very impressive indeed. No, the big issue is that the entries by directors such as Ti West, Ernesto Diaz Espinoza and Angela Bettis are such worthless exercises in lazy, groan-inducing box-ticking, they derail the entire anthology. In this case, the negatives don't outweigh the positives necessarily, but they're so terrible, they leave a sweaty, rancid taste throughout. Given the unpleasant subject matter of several other pieces, that's a sickening combination that fails to satisfy.
The ABC's of Death is not without value, but you do have to sift through a lot of crap to find the gems, and even at that, it'll be little recompense for some. It's just about worth persevering for serious horror fans, but prepare to be disappointed,disgusted and perhaps offended, in addition to being amused and in one or two instances, disturbed.