Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The ABCs of Death 2 (2014)

I know what you're probably thinking - that when I reviewed The ABCs of Death two years ago, I said I probably wasn't going to watch the sequel when it came out. But, in the end, the possibility for improvement, and the great variety of features on display, led me to believe that there might be something worth seeing if I sat through it. Also, it's a pretty unusual format - 26 shorts in a row - and I kind of had fun reviewing the last one (more than I had watching it, I'd wager). Even though it's an ambitious anthology, I guess it's a bit of a relief to be able to sum up most of the shorts in a quick sentence or two - or even just a brief reference - with the freedom to leave out completely anything worth forgetting.

Unfortunately, any hope that the low-brow nature of the last feature was an unintended consequence of the format, instead of its very goal, is dashed by the sequel, which unashamedly takes the same approach (although if they're going to take this route, they might as well be unashamed). Instead of steering the directors towards what I feel this project should be - haunting ruminations on death by talented auteurs - it is, again, a celebration of gore and gross-out, and a shameless exploration of the boundaries of good taste, where "death" is only meaningful insofar as it represents the ability to carve people up like so many sacks of meat, with little to no emotional ramifications. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening theme, which, while clever, is not quite as subtle or as compelling as the first. Cardboard schoolchildren, in the context of a "pop-up book", engage in a violent series of visual puns - such as playing catch with one kid's head, using a razor wire for jump rope, and swinging from another kid's intestines. To top it all off, the teacher adds the "2" to the title card by writing it using a piece of one of her students' brains. Yeah, that pretty much sets the stage.

To its credit, the anthology starts out strong, with a few of its better segments. Amateur juxtaposes the glorified fantasy (shot in music video style) versus the gritty reality (although maybe a little too gritty) of being a hitman. Badger takes a simple concept (a mutant badger), and spices it up with some character-driven humor. Capital Punishment is one of my favorite segments, depicting a riveting tale of vigilante justice that is uncommonly cognizant of real world statistics. Not every segment with a social conscience is aimed in the right direction, however. Torture Porn fails to be terribly interesting in spite of its reversal of a typical take on tentacle rape. It's a literal interpretation of the titular phrase, which is bound to add fuel to the fire of those who believe an entire industry operates like this minority niche. The segment's revenge against sexism is no more successful than Jesus' attack on homophobia; even though that segment's portrayal of conversion therapy as a torturous form of exorcism is laudable.

Masticate is a good example of an intelligent short that is nevertheless still uncomfortable to watch. It mostly consists of tracking a fat, hairy guy in his underwear, randomly accosting people in the streets - in slow-motion. But the revelation at the end, explaining his behavior, is nothing short of brilliant. Xylophone similarly features a brilliant punch line, although it is terribly macabre, and thoroughly disturbing - psychologically as much as physically. If you're looking for nightmare fuel, look no further than Deloused, a creepy claymation segment that is as surreal as it is horrifying. Wish is also highly imaginative, about two boys who are sucked into a silly '80s toy commercial only to confront the dark and horrible reality of their fantasy world come to life. Youth isn't great, but it does feature a giant hamburger monster that shoots fries like darts. It's also this movie's requisite Japanese segment that features a giant penis prop.

Too many features have too little to recommend them, though - many no more than a clever idea or premise, with less than compelling execution. The best thing I can say about Falling is that it cleverly plays with your expectations, when what appears to be a hanged corpse is just a paratrooper stuck in a tree. Invincible (which could just as soon have been titled Immortal, or Inheritance), takes the old setup of a family bickering over their inheritance, and inserts a matriarch that is frustratingly impervious to death. Nexus is really only interesting inasmuch as you get to see people decked out in their Halloween costumes, although it does make a clever nod to the audience's tendency to try to guess what word each segment is going to use. The questionnaire in Questionnaire is perhaps more thought-provoking than the novel scientific use the petitioner has for really smart minds in that segment. Utopia is a shallow yet potentially frightening twist on a sci-fi dystopia, where everyone is beautiful, and it is those of sub-normal attractiveness that are the outcasts.

Ochlocracy (mob rule) is almost as good as it is an intelligent commentary on the zombie genre. It explores a zombie apocalypse in which a cure for zombism has been found, and the survivors are taken to zombie court for the homicidal violence they've (gleefully, it sometimes seems) enacted in self-defense. Split turns out to be an interesting take on a home invasion, with one witness on the phone, and split-screen perspectives - even if the killer's motivation in the end was stretched beyond the viewer's suspension of disbelief. Roulette is another one of my favorite segments. In a rare example of subtlety, the horror is almost exclusively psychological. You're stuck thinking, why would anybody ever play a deadly game like Russian Roulette? And what's gotta be going through your head when you're the sixth turn, and you know the bullet's in the chamber, and you gotta go through with it anyway? Even played straight, this would be a compelling segment, but the ending takes it to another level by satisfying the viewer's morbid curiosity.

There are, of course, a fair share of duds as well. Some segments just leave you wondering, why? Equilibrium seems a pointless attempt at sexist humor. Grandad is little more than an excuse to depict an elderly gentleman in his underwear flashing the camera. Knell is confusing - why is the Black Oil from The X-Files behaving like one of Evangelion's Angels, and what connection does it have to menstrual blood? If there's supposed to be some kind of symbolism there, it's beyond me. Legacy is inscrutable, and its poor effects ruin the monster it has, anyway. P-P-P-P Scary! is utterly forgettable Three Stooges-like tripe, that doesn't even use the right letter! (It should have been rejected for that alone, except that this feature seems to be as dedicated to low-brow comedy as it is to low-brow horror). And Vacation features gratuitous sex, drugs, and violence, in a depiction of "dudebro" culture that could just as soon have been titled V/H/S (even down to the filmed footage approach!).

The feature ends with Zygote, which is probably the most stomach-turning segment (literally!), about an overbearing mother who refuses to let her daughter leave her womb, 13 years after conception. I'm hesitant to praise this segment for anything, but it would seem to have a lot of symbolic potential (if you care to think about it that much), and that scene where the child makes room to stretch out inside her mother's body is memorable in a lawnmower-scene-from-Braindead sort of way (i.e., try not to think about it while you're eating, and hope that you don't have nightmares about it). A fine finish, I suppose? Overall, The ABCs of Death 2 thankfully relies less on "toilet horror" than the last one. I'm tempted to say that the general quality of the shorts has improved, and there is more to recommend it, and less to warrant steering clear; however, it'd still be preferable if one could pick and choose the better segments to watch (as subjective as that selection would have to be). There is still plenty of gore and irreverent, morbid humor on display, though, so daring viewers only need apply. But there's allegedly a third feature in the works, and this time, I can't be so sure that I won't watch it when it comes out.

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