Since the unexpected success of cult horror anthology V/H/S last year (such that a sequel, S-VHS, has just had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival), it appears that the short film compilation format is making something of a comeback for the genre.
The ABCs of Death contains 26 short films, one for each letter of the alphabet, with a director tackling a letter each, some of whom are well-established horror mainstays such as Ti West, Angela Bettis, Simon Rumley, Ben Wheatley and Yoshihiro Nishimura, whereas others will be virtually unknown to even the most fastidious genre aficionados.
It would be very easy for an experiment like this to be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth; after all, the strength of the V/H/S format was that the small number of shorts within a 2-hour run-time allowed the filmmakers to build palpable suspense before delivering a stinging pay-off. Indeed, building suspense in 4 or 5 minutes isn’t easy, and probably why most of the filmmakers here don’t even bother trying; the majority of the films amount to a punchline reveal to a joke that is quickly established at the outset, or they tend to rely on a gimmick, such as Ben Wheatley’s so-so first-person zombie short.
It’s simply something viewers need to go into with an open mind, though given the tripe most horror fans seem generously prepared to give a chance, that shouldn’t be a problem; this is a hugely uneven anthology, though the appeal of it is that it never bores – if a short misses (such as Ti West’s horrendously disappointing film about a miscarriage that he clearly spent no longer than five minutes thinking about), it’s over before the audience can become overly tired of it.
This breezy format also allows for a lot of variety; some shorts are low-budget, others are unexpectedly slick and might lend themselves well to a full feature treatment, and the subject matter varies wildly throughout – a few aim for gritty and realistic, though most tend to dive enthusiastically off the deep-end into more absurd territory.
The problem? The end result isn’t scary; there’s not a remotely terrifying short in the bunch, and perhaps in recognising the limitations of their format, the directors most often opt for excessive gore, wise-cracks and flat-out insanity; some just happen to contain all three.
At the end of the day, it’s this quirkiness that keeps it powering through some of the lesser shorts; even some of the unimaginatively crude shorts about flatulence and excrement are at least a might more irreverent than an Adam Sandler equivalent, even if the risible visual effects do quickly become tiresome.
The “best”, or at least, the most disarming short of the litter is surely Timo Tjahjanto’s hilariously crude depiction of a man who is placed in a gruelling contest – presumably against his will – to pleasure himself to increasingly depraved situations. It’s one of the most brilliantly tasteless, boundary-pushing things I’ve seen since A Serbian Film; you will want to take a shower afterwards.
Though not scary, a few shorts – specifically “I”, “R” and “Y” – will have viewers actively wincing at the grotesquery on screen, even if they don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, while two tales in particular – one about an honour killing gone wrong (“J”) and the other involving a parrot who gets his owner in trouble (“N”) – deliver plenty of uproarious laughs.
There are those that seem more like art installations than horror film shorts (letter “O”, about orgasms, is only concerned with death in the sense that the French refer to an orgasm as a “little death”), and those that attempt the whole meta shtick (“Q” and “W”), along with two which mimic iconic cinema (“S” clearly references Russ Meyer’s exploitation classic Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! but with a postmodern twist, whereas Yoshihiro Nishimura’s “Z” is a loving ode to Dr. Strangelove, but with more penises), and plenty more which simply defy expectation.
The ABCs of Death is best viewed as a curio for horror enthusiasts and fans of oddball cinema. Expect to be creeped out on any level and you’ll be courting disappointment, as several of the better-known filmmakers (West, Rumley) end up churning out underwhelming, effortless shorts. Little here is truly remarkable, but it’s the variety that keeps it bounding long. Above all else, it certainly doesn’t feel like 2-plus hours.
The ABCs of Death is available on VOD now and opens on limited release in the US on March 8th.
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