Like an episode of Sesame Street being broadcast from hell, The ABCs Of Death presents 26 shorts by 26 different directors each of whom illustrate a different way to die based around the letter of the alphabet selected. The people called upon span the globe with talents working in both live action and animation. The promise is a varied rollercoaster of the macabre. It’s an intriguing proposition and, as a horror fan, one that immediately landed on my radar as one to watch, especially given some of the more high-profile/cult names involved such as Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers), Jason Eisner (Hobo With A Shotgun), Ti West (The Innkeepers, The House Of The Devil) and Noboru Iguchi (The Machine Girl).
Of course by its very nature something like this is going to be of changeable quality throughout, so unevenness is factored in from the start. Depending on your sensibilities (and stamina levels) some installments here are going to capture your interest more than others. Think of it on similar terms as 2006’s Paris, Je T’Aime or its lovelorn sister New York, I Love You… except with a craven heart and enough stomach-churning effects and taboo-busting imagery for 26 separate features in its own right. And not a Natalie Portman in sight.
The ABCs Of Death is relentless. Two hours blow by, and there’s always something of interest just around the corner, even if the segment you’re on fails to ignite. However, with so much death and bloodshed colliding together, the overall effect is a little like being put through a meat grinder. For some this will all be too much, especially seeing as a spirit of twisted one-upmanship between some of the filmmakers means that the barriers of good taste are bulldozed down in a crass effort to be the most memorably vile.
It is here that The ABCs Of Death punishes the viewer, where gratuity and exploitation win out over wit or intelligence. Animal cruelty becomes a disturbingly recurrent theme, and more than one segment decides to push the perennial red button of paedophilia. In some of these more mean-spirited sections entertainment doesn’t appear to even be an afterthought. Disappointingly the worst offender in this category is Ti West’s utterly loathsome throwaway entry under M – barely a minute and a half of footage which goes a long way toward undoing what a run of effective features have built up. Combine this with his underperforming contribution to V/H/S and it’s clear that the short film is not his strong suit. His work here is shoddy and appalling.
Unsurprisingly, the creative minds behind V/H/S turn up themselves, offering the polar-opposite to West with their comedy sketch for the letter Q. Indeed The ABCs Of Death is at its most enjoyable when it’s directors aim for irreverence, homage or humour. Those who attempt to use their time to make a serious point (letters I and P in particular) end up leaving a bitter taste in the mouth largely because the format doesn’t allow enough time for their agendas to be seriously addressed. They end up feeling merely cruel. The most successful of these is X (by Xavier Gens) – yet it is also one of the more bloody and uncomfortable shorts included.
The time constraint means that for the most part our hosts go for the jugular. As such anyone looking for some real creep outs and psychological scares may set themselves up for disappointment. Only one piece here tries to build a mood of dread and suspense – B by Adrián García Bogliano – however he is ultimately compromised by the necessity of a rushed conclusion. No, far more often The ABCs of Death is about blood-letting mayhem or downright lunacy (any of the Japanese entries).
Highlights? It will depend on what you want and what you’re looking for. If it’s cinematic artistry, then D (Marcel Sarmiento) and O (Hélene Cattet) are impressive, though work more as slick music videos than mini-horror features. There’s also a certain respectable ambition to both S (Jake West) and V (Kaare Andrews) whose creators seem intent on cramming a whole feature into 5 minutes.
Of the animated efforts, claymation wins out in T (for Toilet) by Lee Hardcastle. Whilst best sequence overall probably goes to UK golden boy Ben Wheatley for his contribution under the letter U. If its sheer madness you’re after then you’ll not see anything more childishly ridiculous than Niboru Iguchi’s entry under F or the closing orgy of blood, boobs and penises offered up by Yoshihiro Nishimura. It’s a fitting end to this two-hour assault on the senses.
And then there is L by Timo Tjahjanto. I honestly don’t know what to say about that one.
Taken piece by piece, The ABCs Of Death hits about as often as it misses, but even those misses often include elements that are working well or are at least interesting. Setting aside the sheer amount of grue for a moment, this overstuffed presentation crams in ideas like few other viewing experiences this year. It’s like V/H/S on crack. The caveat I suppose is just how much nastiness you can stomach.
The continual jerking of tone makes this a lurching experience, whilst the relentless violence can become oddly numbing. Given that all contributors were working independently, coincidence breeds some unusual repetition – it’s strange how recurrent bathrooms are. Ultimately, there are belly laughs to be had and sobering reflections to make you pause or lament. It’s just a shame that some contributors seem to have tried too hard to standout, sullying the experience overall.
I went into The ABCs Of Death anticipating the best roll in the gutter since Hobo With A Shotgun. In a sense that’s exactly what I got. Like that movie, most of what is presented here is not for the fainthearted. Exactly the mixed-bag you’d do well to expect. You have been warned.