THE ABCS OF DEATH
The ABCs of Death is one of the more unique ideas for an anthology film. We have had anthologies with segments from different directorial hands before see the likes of Dead of Night (1945), Tales of Mystery and Imagination/Spirits of the Dead (1968), Twilight Zone The Movie (1983), Necronomicon (1993), Three ... Extremes (2004), Chillerama (2011), The Theatre Bizarre (2011), V/H/S (2012) from earlier in this year (which also featured contributions from Ti West and Adam Wingard) and sequels, The Profane Exhibit (2013), Southbound (2015), Tales of Halloween (2015), Grindsploitation (2016), Holidays (2016) and XX (2017) to name a handful of genre entries. Most of these feature three to five different directors each contributing a segment based around a common theme. In the case of The ABCs of Death, we have contributions from no less than twenty-seven different directors (not the twenty-six the opening credits claim, seeming to forget that O is for Orgasm was directed by two people). The directors were recruited from people that Ant Timpson and Tim League had befriended at various film festivals. Each was given a $5000 budget and the topic of death and no restriction in how far they could take the material.
Most anthologies vary with some episodes usually emerging better than others this is even more the case here with the sheer number of contributors to the project. Each episode is structured so that we see the film and then it is revealed what the letter in question stands for. Some have used this as the opportunity to let the explanation of the letter act as a punchline. In the opening segment A is for Apocalypse from Nacho Vigalondo, the Spanish director of Timecrimes (2007), Open Windows (2014) and Colossal (2016), we get scenes of a wife brutalising and trying to kill a husband with moderately gore-drenched regard before the somewhat weak punchline reveals that she has decided to hurry up her efforts to poison him off before the nuclear apocalypse arrives.
B is for Bigfoot from Spains Adrian Garcia Bogliano who made Here Comes the Devil (2011) and subsequently went onto the immensely original werewolf film Late Phases (2014) reaches a similar weak ending a babysitting couple who want to make out scare a young child with a story about a Bigfoot that preys on young children that dont stay under the blankets. The build-up is okay but the segment falters at the punchline that reveals there really is such a Bigfoot after all. Or perhaps a deformed serial killer it is never clear what.
Some of the episodes produce scratches of the head. I never managed to understand what was going on in C is for Cycle from Chiles Ernest Diaz Espinosa. A man has trouble sleeping, finds a shadowy hole in his backyard and emerges to find another version of himself sleeping in his bed. It is not clear what the hole is or why there is a doppelganger, if the man has passed through a time portal or what. The entire segment seems like an experimental student short that has failed to communicate or think through its ideas.
After three relatively uneventful episodes, A-C, D is for Dogfight from Marcel Sarmiento, the American director of Heavy Petting (2007) and Deadgirl (2008), livens the show up. The episode is focused around the bare-hands fight between a man and a dog in front of a warehouse full of bettors. This is shot with a harshly brutal hyper-realism that emphasises every blow, every drop of sweat in slow-motion. The only point of confusion for me was uncertainty about the significance of the ending, which you feel was trying to build to a big twist revelation but leaves you feeling like you missed some key point of information.
E is for Exterminate comes from actress Angela Bettis, known for parts in films such as Toolbox Murders (2003) and the title roles in May (2002) and the tv mini-series remake of Carrie (2002). Bettis delivers a man versus spider story. You feel this should have been a good psychological episode something along the lines of the Theyre Coming Up on You episode of Creepshow (1982) or even perhaps something of the bizarre spider attacks in Lunatics: A Love Story (1991). Only the segment fails to generate much tension or paranoia out of a battle between a man and a tiny ordinary-sized spider. Somehow spiders only seem to obtain a malevolence when they are about twenty times normal size.
F is for Fart is one of three Japanese entries, all of which come from directors associated with the new wave of gonzo Japanese gore movies. Needless to say, all three episodes are completely insane. F is for Fart comes from director Noboru Iguchi of Machine-Girl (2008), Robo Geisha (2009), Mutant Girls Squad (2010), Zombie Ass: The Toilet of the Dead (2011) and Dead Sushi (2012) fame. It starts out along the lines of the peculiar Japanese fascination with lesbian schoolgirls and thereafter abandons all good taste with scenes of Arisa Nakamura developing a fetish for smelling her teacher Yui Muratas farts, which turns into a bizarrely surreal scene as Yui starts farting noxious yellow clouds and Arisa is sucked up Yuis ass and the two of them float happily together in the afterlife in Yuis bowels. Equally strange is J is for Jidai-geki, from Yudai Yamaguchi, director of Battlefield Baseball (2003) and Meatball Machine (2006), which concerns a samurai about to execute a man. Most of the episode centres around the executee undergoing strange transformations his face swelling up, eyeballs popping out, dangling and swinging on their stalks before the man is beheaded. The films most completely batshit segment is Z is for Zetsumetsu from Yoshihiro Nishimura, a makeup effects artist on many of the aforementioned films who co-directed Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl (2009) and Mutant Girls Squad and solo directed Tokyo Gore Police (2008) and Helldriver (2011). This completely plotless episode involves a bare-breasted woman in Nazi regalia duelling with a giant inflatable dick that comes with a sword tip, another firing vegetables out of her vagina (that are promptly sliced up by the dick sword and drop into a conveniently placed pot), a crazed Japanese version of the title character from Dr Strangelove or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), naked people dressed as Little Boy (the atomic bomb), lesbian loves scene where people are being smeared in rice, and a woman with a 9/11 cartoon on her tits that allows a plane to collide with the Twin Towers when they are swung together, all with some vague connection to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Probably the weakest in the entire film is G is for Gravity from Australias Andrew Traucki, the co-director of the excellent killer crocodile film Black Water (2007) and solo director of the killer shark film The Reef (2010). The episode consists solely of a first-person camera mounted on a surfboard (and features no actors) whereupon the surfer is knocked off and drowns (all shown in first-person).
Ranking highly in the demented category is H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion from Norwegian director Thomas Cappelen Melling who previously made Norwegian Ninja (2010). Melling incarnates his piece as a tribute to furry fandom with the hero being a British bulldog flyer who lusts after a cat dancer who is then revealed to be a Nazi temptress. Melling plays up the furry sex undertows for all he can, while giving the segment the feel of a cartoon in live-action. The episode is also a masterpiece of nonsensical handcrafted retro WWII design.
I is for Ingrown is from Mexicos Jorge Michel Grau who previously made the cannibal family film We Are What We Are (2010). Grau has stripped all elements of his segment to a minimum we have no idea who the woman chained up in the bath is, who her captor is and why he thinks she is an intruder, or what he injects her with. The episode however has a considerable grimness as we sit slowly watching her die while chained up.
There are several episodes that decide to push across all boundaries of good taste. One of these is Anders Morgenthalers K is for Klutz. Morgenthaler is a Danish animator, previously known for Princess (2006) about a man taking violent revenge against a group of pornographers. This episode has a demented glee as a woman goes to the bathroom at a party and has to deal with a nightmare turd that refuses to flush away and keeps laughing with a squeaky voice at her increasingly more frenetic attempts to be rid of it. In a somewhat similar vein and style comes T is for Toilet from British Claymation animator Lee Hardcastle, which deals in amusingly dark ways with a young childs catastrophic fears of going to the toilet for the first time.
Probably the films most extreme episode is Timo Tjahjantos L is for Libido. Tjahjanto is one half of the Indonesian duo known as The Mo Brothers who made the gore-drenched Macabre (2009) and the psycho film Killers (2014), while on his own Tjahjanto also contributed an episode to V/H/S/2 (2013). L is for Libido suggests a demented mix of the deadly human gambling of 13 Tzameti (2005) and A Serbian Film (2010) with its catalogue of extreme perversions. Here we get people betting on masturbation contests as competitors are forced to get off to increasingly more extreme acts including an amputee who removes and masturbates with her artificial leg and a man who has his way with a young boy. The climax of the piece is the protagonist, having won, tied to a bed and being gleefully ridden by a woman who cuts off his head with a chainsaw at the point of orgasm.
Two of the most disappointing segments come from directors with the most high profile genre names. Ti West, a rising name in recent years with The House of the Devil (2009), The Innkeepers (2011) and The Sacrament (2013), contributes M is for Miscarriage. The entire episode, the briefest in the show, centres around a woman trying to flush something down the toilet. The punchline comes in the end revelation of what this is M is for Miscarriage. It is an exceedingly slight payoff for an episode that is almost instantly forgettable.
The other major disappointment is Q is for Quack, which comes from American director Adam Wingard who has become a rising name with films like Pop Skull (2007), A Horrible Way to Die (2010), Youre Next (2011), The Guest (2014) and Blair Witch (2016). This could be considered a meta-episode one about the process of trying to make an episode with Wingard and his writer Simon Barrett racking their brains for ideas, before deciding to shoot a duck. For a time, the episode leaves you wondering whether they actually will shoot the duck on camera, but peters out at an exceedingly weak black comedy ending. The entire episode feels like one where Wingard and Barnett were making zero effort whatsoever. W is for WTF is another meta-episode set around the making of an episode. It is a rather slight piece from Jon Schnepp, an animator/director on tv shows like The Venture Brothers (2003 ) and Metalocalypse (2006 ) and later the documentary The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? (2015) about the aborted Tim Burton-Nicolas Cage Superman film, in which Schnepp and Tommy Blacha find all of their mooted ideas for the letter W coming true with apocalyptic results.
Also failing to work is N is for Nuptials from Thai director Banjong Pisanthanakun, who co-directed the original version of Shutter (2004) and Alone (2007). The episode feels out of place in a horror anthology it is more a weak comedy of errors about a man who buys a parrot to propose to his girlfriend, which then starts saying things it shouldnt before she turns and stabs him and the screen is washed with a fake spray of gore. In a similar vein is P is for Pressure from British director Simon Rumley known for works like The Living and the Dead (2006), Red, White & Blue (2010) and Johnny Frank Garretts Last Word (2016). The film seems to be a slice of life segment filmed in Surinam that follows a woman as she struggles to make a living for her and her children. This feels like it is a drama from another type of film altogether a work of social relevance about daily life in some poverty-stricken corner of the world and it is only the inclusion of the climactic scenes where the woman has to participate in videos where she stomps on kittens that gives the segment any relevance.
O is for Orgasm comes from the Belgian duo of Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani who previously made the extraordinary Amer (2009) and the subsequent The Strange Colour of Your Bodys Tears (2013), which both strongly homage the giallo genre. Both of these are films that strip away of most elements of plot and take place purely in terms of visuals designed to evoke emotions and sensations. The same is the case in O is for Orgasm perhaps the films artiest and certainly most beautifully filmed segment. It is all brief, evocative cuts a closeup of the tip of a cigarette, lips brushing on skin, hands on flesh and leather, glycerine bubbles being blown and popping, a belt going around a body and neck, sharp gasps of breath before the punchline reveals that we are watching an episode of autoerotic asphyxiation.
A Serbian Films director Srdjan Spasojevic contributes the segment R is for Removed. The film features a brutish prisoner being operated on and strips of his skin removed and taken away (for purposes that are never clear) before he makes an escape in a bloody massacre. The episode is shot in an emphatically in-your-face hyper-realism that accentuates the violence. To be honest, I didnt get this episode and what it was trying to do. I was never sure who the prisoner was, why he was being operated on, nor the significance of the ending that arrives abruptly after he struggles to push a train out of a rail yard shed.
S is for Speed comes from British director Jake West who made Razor Blade Smile (1998), Evil Aliens (2005), Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes (2006) and Doghouse (2009), as well as a host of genre-related documentaries and dvd extras. This is a snappy little episode that comes with an undeniable energy and never wears out its welcome before it comes to its downbeat twist ending. West affects a faux grindhouse style the episode reminds of what the Australian El Monstro del Mar! (2010) was aiming for but didnt have the budget before a mildly clever The Sixth Sense (1999)-styled deathdream ending of sorts.
Ben Wheatley, the British director of Down Terrace (2009) and the WTF word of mouth hit Kill List (2011), contributes U is for Unearthed. This is a brief piece all shot in first-person camera from the point of view of a figure being pursued through the woods by various people, where they are eventually cornered and beheaded. The moderately effective punchline is that the people are pursuing a vampire.
Canadas Kaare Andrews, a comic-book artist and the director of the interestingly weird Altitude (2010) and the subsequent Cabin Fever: Patient Zero (2014), contributes the science-fiction segment V is for Vagitus. This essentially draws on pounding Cyberpunk action cliches from RoboCop (1987) with a few under-explained nods towards a zero population future, before an ending concerning a miracle child. Nothing particularly remarkable here.
Xavier Gens, the French director of the gore-drenched Frontier(s) (2007), the videogame adaptation Hitman (2007) and the excellent grim nuclear holocaust film The Divide (2011), contributes X is for XXL in which he tackles the issue of womens pressure to maintain the body beautiful and a slim figure. The episode takes Gens back into Frontier(s) territory and essentially involves the plus-size heroine conducting self-surgery (all as a weightloss miracle diet commercial plays out on the tv in the background) with gore-drenched results.
Y is for Youngbuck from Canadas Jason Eisener, the director of the cult hit Hobo with a Shotgun (2011), is the only episode that could be said to be suffering from artistic pretensions. Eisnener cuts back and forward between a kid in high school and out on a hunting expedition accompanied by the school janitor who is revealed to be a paedophile. The cuts between the two storylines, not to mention the payoff of the piece that involves the slaughtered deer seemingly come back to life to exact justice, the kid using its severed head to impale and kill the janitor and the janitors head being potted through the basketball hoop seem rather absurd. This is a segment that feels as though it needed more of the gonzo approach that Eisener took in Hobo with a Shotgun.
ABCs of Death 2 (2014) was a sequel featuring a different twenty-six directors. Ant Timpson went onto produce/promote a number of other films including Housebound (2014), Deathgasm (2015), Turbo Kid (2015), which started out as a entry in the open T section here, and The Greasy Strangler (2016).