Ups and downs are expected when it comes to anthology films. Certain shorts won’t hit as hard as others, and tonal shifts are bound to happen. This is true about movies like Creepshow and Creepshow 2, and it’s especially true when the anthology films involve multiple directors and subjects (think of The Fourth Dimension, Three… Extremes, Doomsday Book).
The multi-director anthologies I listed above only have three movies each. The ABCs of Death features 26 movies by 26 different directors/directing teams, one for each letter of the alphabet like a children’s reading primer. It’s a great idea, but the quality of the anthology really depends on the individual efforts by the various directors.
As you can imagine, there are plenty of ups and downs in the anthology, though generally the ups outnumber the downs.
The ABCs of Death
Release Date: January 30, 2013 (VOD); March 8, 2013 (theatrical)
Reviewing anthologies is sometimes a little difficult since you wind up dividing your attention between the shorts themselves and the experience of the shorts in sequence as a whole. When you have a single director at the helm (e.g., George Romero with Creepshow), there’s usually a throughline or frame — connective tissue of some kind. If Creepshow is more like a mix-tape, anthologies like The ABCs of Death are more like listening to terrestrial radio (for those who remember that). In terms of presentation, the short plays first, and then the title of the short appears at the end. Keeping the title at the end adds a kind of guessing-game element to the film, and a good third of the punchlines to the various shorts come from seeing what word the letter/film is meant to represent. (With that in mind, I won’t name any of the shorts except for two of my favorites.)
Those highs and lows are the material that stick out the most. I mentioned that the highs outnumber the lows, and some of the highs in the anthology are stellar. Two of my favorites from the whole anthology were “D” is for Dogfight and “T” is for Toilet, and we were fortunate enough to interview the directors of them recently: Marcel Sarmiento (“D” is for Dogfight) and Lee Hardcastle (“T” is for Toilet). “D” is for Dogfight is like Fight Club in a dirty kennel, and “T” is for Toilet is some great claymation mayhem about irrational childhood fears.
I think what sets both “D” is for Dogfight and “T” is for Toilet apart is a sense that Sarmiento and Hardcastle had something to prove. Sarmiento tried to make a move as stylish as interesting as possible given his brief amount of time, and he expertly pulls off his story without dialogue. To get “T” is for Toilet into The ABCs of Death, Hardcastle had to win a contest, so he was forced to bring his best to the table and use claymation to do what’s unique to the medium.
The shorts that push the filmmakers and the form to its limits or to make the shorts as inventive and crazy as possible are the ones that elevate The ABCs of Death. With that in mind, I also enjoyed Thomas Malling’s madcap Tex-Avery-like short for the letter H, Timo Tjahjanto’s absolutely disturbing entry for L, Srdjan “A Serbian Film” Spasojevic’s evocative short for R, Ben “Sightseers” Wheatley’s fun use of subjective camera in U, and Xavier Gens’s gory and yet poignant body image story for the letter X. I also really liked Bruno Forzani & Héléne Cattet visually beautiful short for O and the expedient storytelling in Simon Rumley’s short for P — both aren’t horror movies, but both are nicely made short films. (Then again, a lot of the shorts in The ABCs aren’t straight horror films either.)
But then there are the lows. Two letters in the anthology stood out to me as especially poor. Andrew Traucki’s short for the letter G is a non-story and not engaging at all. It’s marginally noteworthy for its use of subjective camera, but Wheatley uses POV better and in a more engaging story for the letter U. G feels like an exercise rather than a short, so while it’s bad, it’s not quite offensively bad.
The worst of the worst is M, however, from Ti West (The Innkeepers). It’s so lazy, as if no effort or creativity was expended on it. It boggles my mind that that Drafthouse Films even included it in the movie. Instead of including this insulting non-effort, they should have sent West back to work on an actual short that’s worth watching.
West’s short was probably written on a napkin during lunch and then shot that afternoon in half an hour; no editing required. At least Traucki tried to do something visually interesting with G. West’s short is especially bad when compared to the work of Sarmiento, Hardcastle, Malling, Gens, Wheatley, and so on (i.e., people who seemed like they actually gave a crap about the project). I actually saw a very disturbing scene in the Turkish drama Araf – Somewhere in Between last year that should have taken the place of West’s entry.
The rest of the shorts range from good to middling to mediocre. The Japanese entries are all fun, particularly the anarchic entries for F by Noboru Iguchi (Zombie Ass, Karate-Robo Zaborgar) and Z by Yoshihiro Nishimura. Both Kaare Andrews’s entry for V and Jake West’s short for S feel like student films — both interesting, both pretty ambitious, but more like precursors to feature-length works on the same subject matter. The same goes for Ernesto Diaz Espinoza’s C short: a good idea that calls for more time and exploration.
Since Drafthouse gave all the directors freedom to do what they wanted with these shorts, there winds up being unintentional repetitions and similarities between some of the films. Both Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett’s Q short and Jon Schnepp’s W break the fourth wall, for instance, which inadvertently robs each of the films of their uniqueness. While Hardcastle’s “T” is for Toilet specifically lists toilet in the title, there are at least three other shorts that center around the toilet. Though I think the oddest thing about the anthology is that none of the shorts are particularly scary. Some are more disturbing or gorier than others, but none of the shorts are memorably potent with frights, whether it be the lingering/haunting creepy kind of scares or sudden boo scares.
But The ABCs of Death isn’t bad at all. It’s just really uneven — an anthology film like a cobblestone road. Thankfully the shorts are short, so even the mediocre ones and bad ones aren’t going to take up too much of your time. I’m left wondering what would have happened if all the films were made with the same amount of gusto, creativity, and energy as best films in the anthology.
“I” is for If Only.