Saturday, October 12, 2013

The ABCs of Death (2012)

I love a good concept piece, and The ABCs of Death is nothing if not ambitious. It's also got a fantastically creepy intro featuring letter blocks (the kind you give babies to play with) and torrents of gushing blood. The idea is that 26 directors were given a letter of the alphabet, and asked to come up with a word that begins with that letter, then direct a short piece based on that word that touches on the theme of death. Because each director has only a few minutes to tell their story, these segments pretty much cut out most of the filler and get right to the point. There is some virtue in being succinct. Unfortunately, there is also an absence of depth, and the temptation to go for easy shock appeal. Couple that with the fact that the directors were given complete creative control, with no limitations on content, and instead of intelligent ruminations that push the boundaries of good taste, what you have is a series of shorts of wildly varying quality that, taken as a whole, were much more successful at causing me to lose my appetite than marvel at the imagination and the skills of the directors on offer.

The exceptional pieces are rare, but do warrant mentioning. Take Dogfight, for example, which has a brilliantly choreographed boxing match between a man and a dog - an actual dog. It sounds ridiculous - and it is - but it looks and feels fantastic when you watch it. Then there is XXL, which is pretty straightforward, but takes a brutal look at the effects of the psychological abuse frequently levied against the overweight. And Quack, which is a refreshingly lucid piece wherein the director brings the audience behind the fourth wall, and utilizes some morbid humor. There are other pieces that contain promising elements, like the revelation in Apocalypse, the bedtime story framework of Bigfoot, the drug abuse metaphor in Speed, the first person perspective of a hunted vampire in Unearthed, or the epic sci-fi premise of Vagitus. And while most of these pieces are pretty direct, some of them are more subtle, like Gravity, which initially flew over my head.

Unfortunately, though, too many of these segments rely on gross-out - like Miscarriage, which was done in really poor taste, and Fart, an inexplicable fart fetishist's fantasy. In fact, a disturbing percentage of segments rely on toilet horror (the claymation toilet monster in Toilet is awesome, but is the sole exception to the rule), which I'm not even sure has that firm a connection to the subject of death. The sexuality did not bother me whatsoever - although the disjointed piece Orgasm left me cold, and while I appreciated the frank depictions of anatomy in Zetsumetsu, it (in the classic tradition of Japanese commercials) didn't make any sense at all. Libido was an interesting piece that conjectured an underground ring of masturbatory death races to increasingly disturbing stimuli. Unlike some others, it was not the taboo subjects (like crushing, and pedophilia) that disturbed me (both topics were directly implied, but not depicted explicitly) - on the contrary, I respect a directors' courage to confront taboos - but rather the sheer (and unrelenting) lack of restraint in depicting gore. I can appreciate a good gore effect in a horror movie, but when it's thrown at you again and again, you start envisioning people as sacks of bloody meat and flesh, and frankly, it turns my stomach.

As for the rest of the segments, if not overindulging in gore, they can often be found approaching the level of absurdity. WTF! does so with full intention, as does the aforementioned Zetsumetsu. And while some of these pieces take their subject seriously (Ingrown, though it left me confused, was very stark), many appeal to humor (and not frequently successfully) - like Jidai-geki, which may have been a parody of samurai films, and attempted to make light of Japanese ritual suicide. The talking parrot in Nuptials may have been good for a quick chuckle, but the piece hardly demonstrates a master horror director at work. And I honestly don't know what was going on in Hydro-Electric Diffusion, except that it involved Nazi furries. Yes, Nazi furries.

The ABCs of Death was a pretty clever idea, and I can't say I really find any fault with the format, but I'm less than totally impressed with a lot of what these 26 directors came up with. There's just simply too much emphasis on gore and gross-out (and toilet horror), that leaves me feeling quite queasy. I'm not even sure it's worth sitting through for the good bits, although if you have a strong constitution, absurdist aesthetic, and/or broad sense of humor, you might want to give it the ol' college try. But the ending credits threaten a sequel in the works, and, frankly, I'm not sure I'll watch it.


  1. Hmm interesting. I heard bad things about this so I didn't watch it, good to see a proper review of it now.

    In a similar vein I definitely recommend V/H/S 2. I found it just as good as the first. It's best features aren't as good as the best two in V/H/S, but all five of V/H/S 2's stories are good, whereas I really wasn't impressed with the middle 3 in V/H/S.

  2. That's good to hear. I'm looking forward to seeing V/H/S 2.