The ABCs of Death (dir. various, 2012)

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The ABCs of Death
Various countries, 2012
Directors: Various

Review by N Emmett

The anthology horror film is a strange beast. Although the subgenre has produced few classics since 1945’s Dead of Night, there is something seemingly irresistible about it, causing filmmakers to return to the format again and again over the decades. From the Amicus portmanteaus of the sixties and seventies to recent efforts such as V/H/S and Little Deaths, it looks as though the horror anthology will always be with us.

The results of anthologies tend to be uneven, and one poor segment can spoil the package – even the masterful Dead of Night tried many viewers’ patience with a jokey sequence about a ghostly golfer. The ABCs of Death seeks to overcome this problem with a simple method: as there are twenty-six segments over a two-hour running time, none of the films are allowed to drag. Didn’t like the last contribution? Well, here are a dozen more.

Overseen by Ant Timpson and Tim League, The ABCs of Death is the work of twenty-six different directors or directorial teams from across fifteen countries. Each was assigned a letter of the alphabet and tasked with providing a short film about death, somehow tied to a word beginning with the designated letter. Beyond this, they were given free reign.

As most of the directors come from the field of horror or transgression cinema, they generally took similar approaches the subject. None tackled the matter of death by telling the story of someone grieving the loss of a loved one, for example, and despite the Del Toro-esque poster there is little gothic fantasy here, either. Instead, the overall tone is that of a sick joke: in several segments the death is reserved for the very end – a gross-out punchline. League of Gentlemen and Psychoville fans should lap most of this film up.

abc1Many segments are absurdist to the point of being cartoonish. The sequence by Thomas Cappelen Malling (Norwegian Ninja) is one of the more literal examples of this approach, being a live action Tex Avery pastiche. With a heroic RAF bulldog and a fox showgirl who turns out to be a Nazi agent, both of whom are played by actors in anthropomorphic animal costumes, it is certainly one of the most memorable episodes.

On a similar note, the Japanese contributors are uniformly off-the-wall. “F is for Fart” by Noboru Iguchi (Zombie Ass, Dead Sushi) comes across as a toilet humour send-up of schoolgirl romance, with elements of disaster movie and some strange metaphysics on the side – although the director apparently did not intend it to be as comedic as it seems. “J is for Jidai-geki” by Yûdai Yamaguchi (Cromartie High – The Movie, Meatball Machine) is another live action cartoon: a samurai attempts to decapitate a man as part of the ritual suicide of seppuku, but is distracted by his target’s comical expressions, the more elaborate of which are achieved using prosthetics.

A few directors, meanwhile, opted to play their material straight. “D is for Dogfight” by Marcel Sarmiento (Heavy Petting, Deadgirl) revolves around a boxer going up against a dog in an underground pit fight; as the film is shot entirely in slow motion, the seedy subject matter becomes a brutal ballet. “I is for Ingrown” by Jorge Michel Grau (We Are What We Are, Chalán) is remarkably honest, its horribly convincing portrayal of a gagged and poisoned woman cutting right through the stylised and jokey portrayals of death elsewhere in the film. The most experimental segment is “O is for Orgasm” by Bruno Forzani & Héléne Catte (Amer, The Strange Colour of your Body’s Tears), a stylish work with symbolic imagery and fragmented shots of naked flesh illuminated by coloured lights.

With the directors being given free reign, it is inevitable that there will be some unintentional overlap. The segments by Jon Schnepp (Metalocalypse, The Venture Bros) and the team of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (You’re Next, V/H/S) are both based around the same gag, abc2following fictionalised versions of the filmmakers as they struggle to come up with ideas for their respective films. Nonetheless, they both contribute remarkably different takes on the same idea.

Some overlaps are more subtle. It is interesting that Wingard and Barrett’s short, in which the filmmakers decide to shoot a duck on camera with comically disastrous results, follows immediately on from “P is for Pressure” by Simon Rumley (The Living and the Dead, Red White & Blue), a drama about a poor Surinamese single mother who resorts to killing animals in crush films for money.

Perhaps the most bizarre coincidence is that the only sequences to be entirely animated –  “K is for Klutz” by Anders Morgenthaler (Eat Shit and Die, Pandaerne) and “T is for Toilet” by YouTuber Lee Hardcastle – are both based around people using toilets. Hardcastle’s piece is a deliberately crude and warped affair, the stop-motion equivalent of a South Park gag, while “Klutz” is actually one of the more satisfying and accomplished sequences in the film.

The biggest recurring theme – aside from death, of course – is sex. To cap it off, almost every sexual act in the film is tied to some kind of paraphilia. One character is strangled during an S&M session; a schoolgirl fantasises about a flatulent teacher; a child molester gets his comeuppance at the hands of a young victim; there is even a bit of furry porn, thanks to that skit with the Nazi fox. Much has been written about the sometimes troubling role played by sex in horror films, and there abc3is certainly an essay or two to be eked out of The ABCs of Death. If the film is treated as a look into the collective unconscious of the horror community – and it is certainly tempting to do so – then one is apt to rub one’s chin.

While there are poor entries, most of these are unmemorable rather than objectionable. There are exceptions to this, however; the biggest misfire is “V is for Vagitus”, by Canadian comic artist Kaare Andrews. This short tells a science fiction story which unfortunately takes its inspiration from the lower end of SF – a toy-like CGI robot, a villain with a silly Darth Vader voice – and does not have the running time to sustain a worthwhile story. The horror elements turn the sequence from pointless to nasty: if a film is going to show a baby being decapitated then it needs a pretty good reason, something which Andrews does not provide.

That said, “V is for Vagitus” at least highlights what a careful balance is struck by most of the other shorts. There are several excursions into outright bad taste, but the most graphic of these can easily be read as comments on the entire field of horror and exploitation.

“L is for Libido” by Timo Tjahjanto (Macabre, V/H/S/2) shows men bound to chairs and competing to pleasure themselves before increasingly sordid sights, while masked and elegantly dressed clientele watch on with amusement. “R is for Removed” by Srdjan Spasojevic (A Serbian Film) sees surgeons peeling strips off a patient’s raw, leathery back and – in a surrealistic touch – developing the skin into film. This short takes on a metatextual aspect when the captive film-being, upon escaping, pushes a train along some tracks – as though repeating the work of the Lumiere brothers.

abc4Social commentary can also be found in “X is for XXL” by Xavier Gens (Hitman, The Divide), about an overweight woman who is taunted by passers-by and, in an effort to emulate a slim model on television, mutilates herself into a bloody, near-skeletal wreck.

Watching the entire feature, it is as though we are viewing an entire genre on fast forward. As certain plot points and motifs make recurring appearances, The ABCs of Death can be seen as the contemporary horror film stripped down to its bare essentials – the essentials which keep both filmmakers and audiences coming back for more.

A film which places so much emphasis on finding ways to kill people is bound to provoke a few questions about just what the appeal of the whole business is. As we are introduced to twenty-six characters, only to see each one die within a few minutes of each other, the film frequently threatens to become a nihilistic grind.

But yet, somehow, it never quite takes that plunge. There is some very heady stuff on offer in this film, certainly, and there is no denying that viewers will need a strong stomach to make it through a few of the sequences. On the whole, however, The ABCs of Death stays just to the right edge of the abyss.

Having said that, the final sequence – courtesy of Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police, Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl) – features a Dr Strangelove-like character presiding a nuclear apocalypse while a heroine who fires vegetables from her nether regions takes on a villainess with a massive, blade-spouting penis, amidst imagery which gleefully invokes Nazism, Hiroshima, 9/11 abc5and the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Perhaps this is over the line, or perhaps it is just a reminder that, with so many countries involved in the making of this film, there’s bound to be a bit of a culture clash.

The bonus features in this release give equal coverage to every segment. There is a feature for each of the twenty-six films, be it a short making-of documentary, a special effects spotlight or a selection of deleted scenes. There is also a commentary track in which every filmmaker – even the chap who designed the title sequence – discusses their work, and the results are often illuminating.

The forgettable “G is for Gravity” becomes easier to appreciate with the knowledge that it was based on a true story, and Yoshihiro Nishimura gives some cultural context to his rather opaque sequence, including the revelation that the vegetable-launching woman is a warped version of Sazae-San – a character from a family comic strip which was launched in 1946. “R is for Removed” gets the most innovative commentary, with Srdjan Spasojevic taking the opportunity to provide narration from the point of view of the main character, adding a new layer to the sequence.

Also on offer are two trailers, a short promotional film made for AXS TV and a strange one-and-a-half-minute cartoon about two children murdering their father because he won’t let them watch the film.

The ABCs of Death is by turns innovative, hilarious, incomprehensible and uncomfortable. It does not always work, but when it does, it proves that there is life in the anthology horror film yet.