Horror anthologies have a long legacy of being abstract, hit-or-miss experiments designed as showcases for new and established filmmakers. The ABCs of Death is no different. Like last year’s V/H/S, this film is a collection of low-budget ($5,000) short films made by all of the young and exciting talent the producers could find.
The deal was that the filmmakers could use their budgets to make whatever film they wanted to make, just as long as its title went with the letter of the alphabet chosen for them, and as long as that title was thematically linked to their film. What we get is a very ambitious, strange, and unique string of twenty-six short films that are sure to confuse, inspire, offend, and, occasionally, scare.
Unfortunately for the film, the first few letters of the alphabet present themselves as rather flat narratives. “A is for Apocalypse” has a good visual style, but the lack of explanation for why the wife is killing her husband during the apocalypse is vague. “B is for Bigfoot” is similarly vague, but it also lacks any real visual ambition. Same with “C is for Cycle,” which, admittedly, is the most enticing short of them all, but also the most disappointing in its failure to bring upon any real revelations.
In fact, perhaps the most unusual and nearly-unwatchable film of the series, “F is for Fart,” is also one of the most stand-out films in terms of a director (in this case Noboru Iguchi) having as much fun as possible. The story is pretty simple. One young Japanese girl has something of a fart fetish, and when a toxic gas takes over the countryside, the young girl takes her teacher (with whom she has a crush) to a bunker, where the teacher farts in the girl’s face. The girl is put into euphoria, and then dies.
Like I said, it’s very unusual. But it’s also exuberantly produced. It appears that the director is having as much fun as he can, but at the sacrifice of giving us a very, very immature fart joke. It’s not horror, and it’s not really comedy, but it’s the work of a filmmaker who is confident in his vision, which is more than can be said for the films that appear prior.
“G is for Gravity” is the first truly effective short of the collection. Unlike the strange childishness of “F is for Fart,” this film focuses on a young man who kills himself in the ocean. It’s a found footage film without dialogue. It’s also lacking in scares. It’s just a somber suicide note that only exists as footage on a GoPro.
Few of the films match the sheer ambition of “H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion,” but the bizarre use of dog and cat prosthetics, and the weird conception of the film existing within a sort-of alternate WWII setting, makes me wonder how this can be classified as horror at all. But the visuals are certainly unique.
“I is for Ingrown,” “J is for Judai-Geki”, and “K is for Klutz,” are each flat and rambling narratives, with “I is for Ingrown” being the only actual horror short of the three. The other two are light comedies that feature gratuitous gore, and “K is for Klutz” is animated, but they never really move past anything other than simple jokes told simply, while “I is for Ingrown” doesn’t tell us enough about the context to scare us, nor does it have the visual virtuosity to scare us without background information.
“L is for Libido,” however, is a very upsetting and nihilistic portrayal of the most sordid sexuality. It clearly takes its notes from Salo, but it infuses its own Saw-like details that make this film one of the most original, and one of the most horrifying, shorts of the set. To give away what’s actually happening in the piece is to sacrifice its ultimate impact. But let’s just say it’s pretty offensive to most American palettes.
“M is for Miscarriage,” directed by Ti West, one of my favorite horror film directors working today, is a characteristically minimalistic approach, that, again, I shouldn’t say too much about for fear of spoiling it, but it’s a very effective, short piece that uses its mood to convey plot. No easy feat.
“N is for Nuptials” and “O is for Orgasm” are my least favorite moments of the film, as they offer very little in terms of story or revelation. The first is an easy joke with a sloppy payoff, and the second is a high-concept abstraction that makes very little sense.
However, “P is for Pressure” is a true standout. It’s a sober look at the life of a prostitute, and it uses excellent sound design and cinematography to tell a wordless story. It’s a beautiful short film has a distinct mood, a great sense of dread, and a very disturbing payoff. This is one that you should look out for.
“Q is for Quack” is one of two self-referential short films, the other being “W is for WTF!” “Q is for Quack” is a relatively light-hearted short about the director, Adam Wingard, trying to figure out what to do with the letter Q, resulting in a tragic ending. It’s fun to get a faux behind-the-scenes short, and the film mostly holds up as a tragic-comedy. “W is for WTF!,” on the other hand, is something of a mess. Even though that seems to be the purpose of the film, it feels lazy in its execution of something that we saw much, much, much better in last year’s The Cabin in the Woods.
“R is for removed” attempts to shock the audience with gore and extreme imagery. It mostly works on those fronts, as the main story is a man whose skin is being surgically removed breaks free from his restraints and goes on a rampage. The effects are really nice, but the overall point is hard to understand.
“S is for Speed” is a clever take on its subject, and its payoff is very welcomed. Like some of the others, the payoff here is the main draw, and I don’t want to spoil it.
“T is for Toilet,” for me, works as the best out-and-out horror. It’s interesting that the scariest film in the list is a claymation short film that feels intended for a younger audience. Not to mention that the short is about a killer toilet. But the extremely disturbing payoff makes the whole thing worth it.
“U is for Unearthed,” from the great Kill List director Ben Wheatley, is a showcase of outstanding special effects and silent exposition, but its short runtime means we don’t get as much meat as we’d like. Perhaps Wheatley’s skill behind the camera jarred me into watching a great movie again, but the rest of the film never felt as good as this short segment.
“V is for Vagitus” is an odd science fiction short that doesn’t feel like it belongs in this film. Mostly because of the tone, which feels closer to McG’s Terminator: Salvation than any horror film I’ve seen.
“X is for XXL” makes a disturbing point about body-shaming in our society. The idea of the short is really upsetting and perfect for this sort of film, and the execution is surprisingly on point. The effects will definitely haunt you.
“Y is for Young Buck” takes a very grotesque story and turns it into a Powerglove music video, and it somehow really, really works. The short is gruesome, creepy, uncomfortable, and just a little funny. It’s sad that “Y is for Young Buck” has to show up so late into the film, when some viewers with low attention spans may have moved on.
“Z is for Zetsumetsu” is an indescribably strange short film involving several phalluses, a Dr. Strangelove impersonator, and the end of the world. It also features a nude fight scene. It’s all sorts of strange, and it’s a good way to end a film with no core meaning or value.
When they said ABCs of death was a horror anthology with complete creative freedom, they weren’t kidding. This is the widest possible spectrum of narrative storytelling they could have come up with, and while all of it might not work, you’ll always be interested in what the film will throw you next. And for that, I’ll recommend it to any horror fan with a strong stomach and an open mind.