Anthologies are in their own special way a cabinet of curiosities. The ABCs of Death, a two-hour anthology feature consisting of 26 different shorts, is a marathon of shorts that have their high points and their low points. The problem a reviewer has with encapsulating the entire affair is where to start.
Do you rate the shorts individually, as a whole, or the entire viewing experience? Considering it had its world premiere during the Midnight Madness portion of the Toronto Film Festival, and now has its U.S. premiere as a feature selection at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, the best approach should be an experience more than anything else.
Knowing little of this anthology beforehand, except that the 26 short films correlate to the 26 letters of the alphabet, I soon discovered that the directors (again 26) were given five grand to make their shorts. Some are well known in the horror community, like Ben Wheatley (Kill List), Jason Eisner (Hobo with a Shotgun) and Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers). The result is a wild hodgepodge of horror that includes death by farting, using the toilet, hydro-electrocution, and one’s own libido. If that sounds like complete fun, well this is the movie for you. The trouble arises with the execution. With complete creative freedom there was no corralling the directors thus allowing their imaginations to run wild and sometimes be on overload (as depicted in “WTF!”). Still, while the idea is brilliant, this anthology experiment is pure imagination run amuck. And with the alphabet as the only connection between the twenty-plus shorts, it feels like a loose connection at best. Sitting through two hours of shorts is a chore in itself, but when you have a few bad ones in a row, what started out as fun can become tedious after awhile.
Thankfully, there are moments of humor sprinkled throughout. Clearly it wasn’t lost on some directors to include comedy with their horror to lighten the mood. This is especially true with “Kapoo,” which sees a voluptuous woman having difficulty in flushing her poo. A completely animated short, she resorts to elaborate schemes in ensuring she doesn’t leave a mess for the next bathroom guest.
The ABCs of Death was the brainchild of Ant Thompson and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema CEO Tim League. Seeing how they could reach out to such an incredible list of directing talent, it’s a shame that the directors who agreed to the project couldn’t push the limits of a $5k budget. Shorts “Cycle” and “Miscarriage” have a film student aesthetic, doing little with the money provided – unlike say “Dogfight,” arguably the favorite short presented. The short “Itchy” is a cautionary tale about the violence towards women in Mexico City. You also have Adam Wingard’s short “Quack,” which openly mocks the concept’s failings by having a writer and a director who can’t agree on what the letter Q should signify. They decide their short should be about the killing of a quail, but the outcome doesn’t go quite as planned.
Despite wearing out its welcome before the end credits, ABCs does offer a nice side game: guessing each segment’s title. The titles of each short are shown before the next short begins, so within those five minutes a game develops. Interestingly enough I was able to correctly guess some of the titles and come awfully close on others.
Overall, The ABCs of Death is a tough movie to judge. Some of the shorts are great, others are bad, and some fall in between. Again, the best way to view it is with an amped crowd of horror fans or with a group of friends that share your twisted sense of humor. It plays much better that way than watching it alone.
Director(s): Kaare Andrews, Angela Bettis, Ernesto Diaz Espinoza, Jason Eisener, Bruno Forzani & Héléne Cattet, Xavier Gens, Jorge Michel Grau, Noburo Iguchi, Thomas Malling, Anders Morgenthaler, Yoshihrio Nishimura, Banjong Pisathanakun, Simon Rumley, Marcel Sarmiento, Jon Schnepp, Srdjan Spasojevic, Timo Tjahjanto, Andrew Traucki, Nacho Vigalondo, Jake West, Ti West, Ben Wheatley, Adam Wingard, Yudai Yamaguchi