The concept of the first volume of The ABCs of Deathwas simple: an invitation extended to filmmakers the world over to submit a short film based around an assigned letter and the theme of death to be included in an anthology with twenty five other directors. With a variation in quality as extreme as some of the inclusions, some directors used the international platform to get themselves talked about not for the quality of their work but by how shocking they could be, a tiresomely juvenile “look at me!” approach which only served to distract from the genuinely innovative creations around them.
Fortunately, with the release of the second volume it seems the first can almost be regarded as a test exercise before the genuinely representative article, for with few exceptions the overall standard has been raised vastly with an entirely new group of filmmakers, opening with E L Katz’s A is for Amateur, a stylishly shot montage of a meticulously planned hit which starts with the slickness of an early Duran Duran video before coming hilariously unglued when the reality of the situation becomes a contributing factor.
Half of The Mighty Boosh, Julian Barratt directs B is for Badger and stars as arrogant and condescending television naturalist Peter Tolland who belittles his camera crew on location at a four hundred year old badger set affected by pollution. Short and fun, like Jim Hoskings’ brief but weird G is for Grandad where a young man crawls into bed to find a most unexpected visitor, both channel a most peculiarly British ethic, the first the joy of witnessing someone guilty of rudeness receive their comeuppance, the latter the squirming social awkwardness of enforced family intimacy.
Brutal and confrontational, Julian Gilbey’s C is for Capital Punishment tells of the miscarriage of justice in a hypocritical court of village elders, a plot similar to Hajime Ohata’s O is for Ochlocracy where the recovered sufferers of apparent dead syndrome convene a kangaroo court where the only verdict is guilty, the revenge of the zombies on the living who tried to cull them, but in style the closest match is the everyday tragedy of Larry Fessenden’s N is for Nexus, as Frankenstein’s monster speeds through the city on his bicycle to meet his Bride for their Hallowe’en date, all the more upsetting for the innocence of the victims.
Similarly painful is F is for Falling where a tangled parachute leaves an injured Israeli soldier at the mercy of an aggressive Palestinian youth, another tragedy where everyone loses. Directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado may have dramatised the events but they are part of a world we have all collaborated to create.
Contrasting the realism of those pieces is Robert Morgan’s surreal stop-motion animation D is for Deloused, a dynamically freakish Kafkaesque tale of gnashy teeth and decapitations; the only other departure from filmed medium is the rough animation of Bill Plympton’s metaphorical H is for Head Games as the two characters unleash warfare, destroying each other and themselves in an escalation of arms admirable more for the intention than the execution.
Also oblique and unsatisfying is Marven Kren’s R is for Roulette, a black and white piece where the audience know the rules, but the question left tantalisingly unanswered is why the characters are playing?
Alejandro Brugués’ E is for Equilibrium is less ambitious but benefits from a lack of pretension, the fake beards not detracting from the tale of two desert island castaways whose dream existence is shattered by the distraction of a shapely third arrival, and fantasy made real is also the curse of two boys who get far more than they bargained for, transported into the imaginary realm inhabited by their action figures in Steven Kostanski’s ridiculously enjoyable W is for Wish.
Equally outrageous are Erik Matti’s gory carnival of excess I is for Invincible as a family futilely seeks to end the rule of their 120 year old matriarch and the wilfully primitive presentation of the tribal politics of distant Ubiniland in L is for Legacy from Lancelot Imasuen where the refusal to carry out a human sacrifice leads to an evil force being unleashed on the village.
Slight but effective is the first of two offerings which border on science fiction, Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper’s disturbing K is for Knell as a woman in a tower block witnesses a pre-apocalyptic event; unaffected by it, she becomes a target for her transformed neighbours. Conversely, Vincenzo Natali’s throwaway and obvious U is for Utopia is additionally let down by poor effects work and the expectation from the director who previously made the brilliant Cube and Splice.
The weakest offerings are Todd Rohal’s inexplicable attempt to recreate the 1940’s gurning of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in P is for P-P-P-P SCARY! which feels dated and indulgent rather than retro, while Jerome Sable’s tiresome V is for Vacation may channel a more recent fad but as the sole found footage representation it is embarrassing in its inability to do anything other than present all the worst clichés of that tired subgenre long overdue retirement, obnoxious people being vulgar as they line themselves up for the inevitable slaughter.
Contrast that treatment of women as pieces of meat with Twisted Twins Jen and Sylvia Soska’s refreshing T is for Torture Porn where an audition goes badly for the director and crew when they fail to treat the talent with the due respect and Dennison Ramalho’s vital J is for Jesus, one of only two stories which bravely deviate from the default heteronormative, a gay revenger’s tragedy from beyond the grave where a businessman arranges to have his son’s lover killed then subjects his son to an exorcism to cast out the spirit of depravity which has possessed him.
Robert Boocheck’s M is for Masticate is a slow motion one trick pony revealing every flesh craving expression contrasted against a sunny soundtrack of jangle pop but doesn’t overstay its welcome, while Rodney Ascher’s Q is for Questionnaire takes a simple set up and turns it into someth
ing sharp and effective, a well-played piece as simple and direct as the interviewer’s concealed motive, while Juan Martinez Moreno’s dual perspective home invasion thriller S is for Split is tense and urgent as it demonstrates that Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
The closing trio sends the collection out on an indisputable high, all concerned with children and family, starting with X is for Xylophone from Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, brief and unambitious but worth it for the hideous punchline as a stressed babysitter finally snaps before Soichi Umezawa offers the emotionally raw Y is for Youth as the neglectful parents of a young girl witness the depth of her rage at their indifference. Finally Chris Nash unleashes the bizarre and repulsive yet fascinating Z is for Zygote as a heavily pregnant woman holds off labour until her absent husband returns by ingesting a medicinal weed.
Although the running time of 124 minutes matches its predecessor exactly, with very few weak segments and little padding within them the whole film feels faster and tighter. With a range of approaches from social commentary to satire, from the absurd to the grotesque and a stricter approach to quality control, this second volume proves to be everything the first collection wasn’t and makes the thought of the inevitable third lesson less frightful.