The portmanteau horror is not new, a staple of Amicus Productions from Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors to The Monster Club, crossing the Atlantic to Romero’s Creepshow and King’s Cat’s Eye, and more recently V/H/S, an anthology showcasing a variety of different directors, and it is in that mould that The ABCs of Death has sprung, twenty six short films from twenty six directors, each unrelated other than they have been assigned one letter as inspiration and granted complete artistic freedom beyond that, with no linking strand between them other than the inevitability of mortality.
The breadth of short films presented is undeniable, and the film is truly an international collaboration, with contributors originating in America, Britain, Canada, Chile, France, Japan, Serbia, Spain and Thailand, and certainly it is refreshing to see subtitled cinema being brought to the masses, even if by stealth, though were the audiences to be similarly challenged by the material on offer it would have been even more welcome.
Viewed as a showcase to introduce their work to new markets with no restrictions put upon them, the presumption would have been for each director to have stretched themselves to the limit, and certainly there are some excellent pieces here, the first being Thomas Malling’s H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion, a bizarre animated animal World War II spy skit, insane, inventive and brilliantly realised, and perhaps all the more remarkable in that it rescues the film from the immediately preceding piece from Noboru Iguchi.
While it is understandable that given such a short time to present their work the first impulse is to reach for shock, it must be backed by some substance, yet F is for Fart has nothing to offer beyond a crass and juvenile excuse to demean the unfortunate actors engaged to perform as a lesbian schoolgirl and the teacher who is her object of desire. With an extensive resume in adult entertainment, it is to be preferred that Iguchi remain on that side of the border in future.
Similarly distasteful with its Nazi inspired S&M/home cookery programme take on Doctor Strangelove is Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Z is for Zetsumetsu, which may aim for stomach churning but ends up more eye rolling for anyone more sophisticated than a fourteen year old. Timo Tjahjanto’s L is for Libido similarly plays with gender roles with slightly more success, the men used as objects for the titillation of the masked crowds with death being the price for failure to perform, but the repetition of the piece to no pertinent climax leaves a foul taste.
Two of the most significant pieces are Jorge Michel Grau’s I is for Ingrown and Simon Rumley’s P is for Pressure, simply because they have no elements of the fantastical, brief glimpses into the all too possible lives of women the world over, beaten and held captive by their husbands, betrayed and forced into prostitution by men, graphic and tragic. Xavier Gens’ X is for XXL is also focused on the way women are viewed and treated in society, as an overweight Parisian woman is heckled and abused by strangers on her way home simply because of her appearance, pushing her to an extreme and graphic makeover.
These three sit in stark contrast to Jake West’s S is for Speed and Ti West’s M is for Miscarriage, the first a crass take off of Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch where any serious intention is derailed by amateur acting and execution, the latter an exercise in irredeemable bad taste where the only positive is its brevity.
Ben Wheatley’s U is for Unearthed is immediate and atmospheric, a first person flight through the forest as a member of the recently undeceased with closely following pursuit, and Jason Eisener’s Y is for Youngbuck shows the subversion and stylistic leanings he displayed in Hobo with a Shotgun serves perhaps more effectively in short form. More narrative than these two, B is for Bigfoot from Adrian Garcia Bogliano manages to create an effective mood, while opening piece A is for Apocalypse from Nacho Vigalondo veers between successfully between horror and humour without really satisfying.
Marcel Sarmiento’s D is for Dogfight manages to redeem its unpleasant subject and brutality with an unexpected twist, but both Jon Schnepp’s W is for WTF and Andrew Traucki’s G is for Gravity are effectively pointless, though the latter at least is not as intrusively tiresome. Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett Q is for Quack, Yûdai Yamaguchi’s J is for Jidai-geki and Angela Bettis’ E is for Exterminate at least demonstrate a sense of humour.
Also featuring work from Ernesto Diaz Espinoza, Anders Morgenthaler, Banjong Pisanthanakun, Bruno Forzani and Héléne Cattet, the film does not live up to its potential, and the general trend of the quality is of the horror genre in general, which is to say lowbrow and exploitive, but at least three strong voices who will be ones to watch if they managed to break through to the mainstream.
The most outlandish in format, setting and narrative, these three standouts are T is for Toilet, a hilarious claymation from Lee Hardcastle, the bold science fiction vision of Kaare Andrews in V is for Vagitus as a policewoman busts a couple for illegally conceiving a mutated child, and the moody imagery of Srdjan Spasojevic’s R is for Removed, as strips of skin are removed from a hospitalised man and treated to reveal strips of film. In particular, the works of Andrews and Spasojevic are important in that they raise as many questions as they answer, but more significantly, the audience is interested in the answers, and hopefully their future work will fulfil these promises.
The ABCs of Death is release on DVD and blu-ray on 3rd June 2013