Review: ABCs of Death (2013)

ABCs of Death

Rating

Director
Nacho Vigalondo, Adrian Garcia Bagliano, Ernesto Diaz Espinoza, Marcel Sarmiento, Angela Bettis, Noboru Iguchi, Andrew Traucki, Thomas Cappelen Malling, Jorge Michel Grau, Yudai Yamaguchi, Anders Morgenthaler, Timo Tjahjanto, Ti West, Banjong Pisanthanakun, Bruno Forzani, Simon Rumley, Adam Wingard, Srdjan Spasojevic, Jake West, Lee Hardcastle, Ben Wheatley, Kaare Andrews, Jon Schnepp, Xavier Gens, Jason Eisener, Yoshihiro Nishimura
Screenplay
Various
Length
123 min.
Starring
Various
MPAA Rating
Not Rated

Buy on DVD/Blu-ray

Poster

Review
Dating back to the hey day of radio, anthology series or films have provided a unique look into the minds of writers of various disciplines. Horror has infrequently embraced the medium with one of the most famous examples in Creepshow based on five Stephen King novellas. ABCs of Death attempts to resurrect the genre that has been largely absent in the last three decades with TV’s Tales from the Crypt being the last widely popular one.

Typically, an anthology film consists of anywhere from three to five disparate stories brought together by a unique framing device. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, for example, used the saga of a young boy being prepared for consumption by a wicked witch played by Deborah Harry. The only thing that ties ABCs of Death together is a torrent of blood sweeping away dozens of children’s wooden letter blocks, which then form the words for each title in the anthology. What makes the film unique, though, is that it tells 26 abbreviated short stories each penned by a noted genre filmmaker from around the world.

From 15 countries, the 26 directors were given a single letter of the alphabet, $5,000, and the freedom to create almost anything they desired. That freedom leads to wildly varying thematic observations and premises that run the gamut from comedy to traditional horror to unusually twisted stories. With no unification of theme or interconnected throughline, the film’s wide selection and variety of topics will lead to largely mixed perceptions of the entirety, with some shorts being universally acclaimed and others being pigeonholed and appreciated by a narrow demographic.

Before going into the individual stories, it’s important to note that there are a number of gems in this 2-hour extravaganza, but there are equal numbers of boring, pedantic or overly bizarre selections that aren’t particularly engaging and sometimes not very horrific. The film warns the audience that pregnant women and animal lovers may have larger concerns about some of the entries than other viewers, but I saw very little that would be overly disturbing. There are more questionable elements in some that may offend entirely different groups of pepole.

On the whole, it’s a compelling look at what frightens audiences around the world and bringing together such an unusually eclectic group of directors is at least laudatory. However, quality control should have been a higher priority and a more entertaining connective story would have helped. If you’re a horror fan, then you owe it to yourself to at least check the film out. Even if you find less than a quarter of the short films entertaining (as I did), it will be a compelling insight into the minds of various artists and an interesting, if sometimes shallow, examination of what’s scary, what’s offensive and what’s outright loony.

Below, I will share my individual reactions to each short. If you want to avoid spoilers or even finding out what each letter stands for (the film reveals that information after the short has played out), then stop reading here. When you’re done, come back and take a look and see where we agree and disagree.

A Is for Apocalypse
A seemingly tangential set of events follows a woman attempting to kill a bed-ridden relation. She attempts to stab him, scald him with hot water and more, but as turmoil erupts unseen outside their window, it becomes clear that she was trying to put him out of his misery before “the end.”

Played for laughs, this particular short succeeds in making the audience wonder what’s going on, but fails to provide anything remotely horrific. There may be cheesy effects in place, but they only enhance the weaknesses of the short.

B Is for Bigfoot
Attempting to have sex, a young couple must convince his young cousin to stay in bed and go to sleep or pretend to be asleep or risk the wrath of the abominable snowman who once stalked Mexico during a particularly unusual bout of snowfall.

What irks me most about this film is its title. Bigfoot is a hairy beast living in the woods. The abominable snowman is similar, but typically part of differing mythos. That the short was originally titled Y is for Yeti showcases how frustrating the film is. We learn here that the producers weren’t really thinking out their film selections, having to swap others’ letters mid-production (this is only one of a few that had been altered or re-assigned). The short is fairly standard horror and payback on the young couple for scaring and trying to fool the young girl fits nicely in the normal elements of the genre. It’s less gory than you really expect and less interesting than it deserves to be.

C Is for Cycle
A man discovers he’s in an endless cycle of death and fright, thanks to a mysterious hole in a hedge in his garden. As he investigates the hole, discovers a doppleganger and is ultimately killed in reponse to the discovery, the short attempts to question varying aspects of our personalities.

The film doesn’t explain anything and my interpretation feels like the only reasonable one, but without any logical evidence or explanation, it’s ultimately a failure. Each time the man creates a new version of himself by approaching and getting sucked into the hedge hole, a different aspect of his personality from curiosity to self-preservation are displayed. The short otherwise makes no sense and other than being a cyclical recreation of self, the title is entirely misleading.

D Is for Dogfight
Entering the world of dogfighting, a man enters the fray attempting to locate his missing dog. There is no dialogue to explain the story, but through visual clues and incidents, the tale comes alive as we discover that the man fighting the deadly pooch is actually the master of the dog in question. I hate ruining this one because discovery is what makes this particular chapter so engaging.

The premise is set up and executed amazingly well, better than any film in this anthology deserves to be; however, director Marcel Sarmiento deserves credit for creating a heartwarming, if bloody conclusion to a pervasive problem that pits dogs against one another in fights to the death. Dogfighting is a major issue today (as is cockfighting and other types of cage-match animal killing competitions) and deserves to be highlighted. This short does an admirable job with that, conveying a sense of sadness and joy as it plays out.

E Is for Exterminate
If you’re an arachnophobe like me, this is the one short you want to avoid. It opens on a nasty looking spider climbing the wall of a small apartment. As the owner of the apartment tries to kill the spider, it gets on him and bites him in the neck. While it is only a minor irritation, perpetual attacks by the spider leave him confused, frustrated, sore and with an inner-ear problem. After he finally kills the arachnid and then celebrates, we discover that the spider has laid eggs. That’s when the short becomes truly terrifying.

I won’t give Angela Bettis too much credit on this one. The entire concept is stolen directly from a Stephen King short and one of the five tales on display in the original Creepshow. The idea isn’t exactly the same, but bears such an uncanny resemblance that the final scene is anticlimactic, though perfectly creepy nonetheless. For arachnophobes, this will be a frightening short. For everyone else, it may end up being a bit of a yawn if they remember their anthology history.

F Is for Fart
Early chapters were confusing and sometimes head-scratchers, but this was the first of many that were downright bizarre. A shy Japanese school girl questions whether girls fart and does so thinking she’s alone, but discovers her slightly older instructor behind her. As an earthquake strikes and noxious gas poors from the earth, the young girl decides if she’s going to die, she’s going to die smelling the fart of her instructor, afterwards getting absorbed into her anus.

The Japanese are certainly well known for their strange approaches to various topics and what passes for entertainment and art there would never have been imagined in the U.S. or other developed nations (though they are sometimes adopted by the West). Other than trying to be absolutely bonkers, the existence of this short proves that quality control was one of the biggest harming factors behind this production.

G Is for Gravity
If “F” is pure lunacy, “G” is the definition of pointless. Told from the POV of an individual we cannot recognize or understand, he takes a bag of rocks and his surfboard into the ocean and swims out before sinking to the bottom. Is it suicide or accidental death or something else entirely? No one knows.

This is easily one of the shortest segments in the film and, as such, the opportunity to explain the purpose is non-existant. That begs the question, why would someone create something that isn’t interpretable, even if wrongly so?

H Is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion
Tex Avery well known for his anthropomorphic cartoons, typically poking fun at the enemy during World War II. This short turns an Avery-like concept into a live-action exercise. An American bulldog sits down to a cabaret show where a seductive fox turns out to be a Nazi operative intent on killing the American hero. What follows is a series of cartoon-style attacks one against the other that showcase just how anti-physics Avery’s cartoons were.

When I first watched the short, the actors dressed as animals was off-putting and the end result seemed needless hokey. However, after thinking about this one for a bit, the concept of doing a Avery-style cartoon in live action is an almost genius decision and while it wouldn’t have been my first idea, it’s probably the most creative short in the entire compilation.

I Is for Ingrown
Intended to highlight the growing, disturbing trend in Mexico of men torturing women, Jorge Michael Grau (We Are What We Are) takes us on a journey as a serial killer prepares to torture and murder a young woman tied up in a bathtub. He injects her with an unknown concotion and we watch as she slowly succumbs to its effects, dying a horrid, painful death.

it’s easy to look at this particular short and think it’s a good fit for a film that has been so heavily stylized and frequently attempting to be humorous, but this short may be the perfect definition of what horror excels at: exposing the dark side of human nature and showcasing the depravity and villainy in the world that too often lies dormant in society’s private sector. Grau’s film may not have much of a plot and doesn’t go anywhere narratively satisfying, but it encapsulates the entire premise of and purpose for ABCs of Death, exploring death in its myriad forms, disturbing or fascinating.

J Is for Jidai-geki (Samurai Movie)
This short film is one of the few whose premise is buried until the last moments. What we see is a man with a sword, presumably about to execute another man. This kneeling man makes various unusual facial expressions leading the standing man to snicker and struggle not to break out laughing. In the end, the standing man is the kneeling man’s second, in a ritual known as Seppuku. Ritual suicide is deemed an effective way for a Samurai (hence the film’s title) to restore his tarnished honor. The second’s job is to behead the ritualist if he is unable to complete the task.

This man distorts another’s pain and finds humor in it, perhaps deconstructing the entire notion of ritual suicide. The expressions of pain and suffering on the practitioners face suggests a humorous approach to the unusual rituals of the past. Of course, it could just be a way to find humor in a very serious, deadly ritual of historical significance.

K Is for Klutz
One of a pair of animated features in the anthology, this one focuses on a haughty woman who’s in the middle of taking a poo and struggles to get the offending piece of crap to flush down the toilet. A number of humorous encounters with the poop flying out of the toilet, sticking to her shoe and other issues leads to a frustrating altercation between the two ultimately leading to her accidental death.

It’s not the most genuinely funny piece in the film, but it has its macabre humor. You wonder early on how exactly this is going to result in death, since each segment requires such. By the end, you can suspect what will happen and ultimately not care. That’s the problem with applying humor to horror.

L Is for Libido
Another weird Asian entry finds a pair of men strapped to chairs in their underwear being forced to ejaculate to images of women in increasingly disturbing scenarios. The first one to get off wins, but the other is killed with a vicious impaling device. This short does not pull punches, showing women masturbating with prosthesis and men molesting children (not graphically depicted like the other segments thankfully), but ultimately it’s this last situation that leads the one character to make it through each of the previous trials to refuse to even attempt. Yet, he’s not killed the same way and is, instead, placed in a predicament where his ultimate death becomes the masturbatory fodder for a new pair of competitors.

Something of a cross between Eyes Wide Shut and Hostel, this is perhaps the most meaningful of the Asian director submissions. In Hostel, the wealthy lived out their sick fantasies with the torture and murder of innocent youths. Eyes Wide Shut had a brief segment where the wealthy engaged in unbridled carnal activities. The two concepts are at play in Libido as a group of masked rich men and women watch as their prisoners torture themselves in order to appease the sick appetites of their captors.

It’s easy to see this short as just a railing against amoral decadence or the whims of the wealthy, but it speaks to our cultural appreciation of the wealthy and the depravity they can exact from the weak and poor in the name of survival. With great horror, sometimes the material is disturbing to the viewer, but in that disturbance, a greater appreciation of the volatility and fragility of life can be observed. This is one of the few shorts that is not appropriate for everyone and will utterly offend many; however, although my initial reaction was a tepid one, further contemplation ranks this one as one of the best and most insightful of all of the shorts in the anthology.

M Is for Miscarriage
This short has been called lazy by those who’ve appreciated the unique sensibilities of The Innkeepers director Ti West. This extremely short film shows us a bloody mess in a toilet and a young woman unabashedly searching the apartment for a way to make sure the toilet flushes correctly. As the title suggests, the detritus in the toilet is a miscarried fetus, though it doesn’t easily resemble one.

The director has gotten flack for not trying to be more creative, but sometimes a simple message can be evoked most effectively with the least effort. While I may not entirely agree with his premise, West is suggesting that society is too cavalierly handling the death of children through miscarriage or even abortion. While calling this A for Abortion might have been a red flag, applying the idea of miscarriage to the concept does diminish the impact.

N Is for Nuptials
The single funniest segment in the entire collection, Nuptials watches as a young Thai couple engage in the kitchen as the woman is preparing a meal. The man has purchased a parrot and been teaching it to speak. In a poignant moment, the parrot asks the woman to marry the man. It’s a genuine, impressive moment that speaks to the romantic in everyone. Then the bird begins replicating other speech it has heard in the night previous, namely the man’s sexual encounter with another woman. Infuriated the fiancée quickly murders her new betrothed.

This is another short I would regret spoiling. Much of the impact is lost with an explanation unlike a story like Libido which can be explained, but has to be seen to be understood. Still, the execution of the humor in this short is still worth the effort and would make a excellent viral video.

O Is for Orgasm
Attempting to go more artistic with a similar, but diverging concept as Libido, Orgasm is constructed of a series of dark close-ups with various sounds surrounding a woman in sexual ecstasy. Whips. Chains. Sounds of sensual torture. It’s a creative depiction of sex, but one which is easily and quickly forgettable.

It’s implied that the ultimate sexual release is at death, since the climax must be reached with the woman’s death. There’s no tension, not seduction, just a series of stylized images that never amount to much at all. I doubt anyone comes out of this series of vignettes and remembers or cares to remember this particular segment.

P Is for Pressure
Speaking out on the issues of poverty and sexual depravity, a prostitute struggles to feed her children as her boyfriend steals money from her stash. Seeking new sources of income, the woman meets a man in a bar. Initially she rejects his request, but with rent due and no way to obtain the money fast enough, she relcutantly agrees to this man’s “kinky” request.

Touching on a rather disgusting sexual fetish not often covered in mainstream media (unlike dogfighting), this short highlights the practice of filming women in high heels cruelly crushing the skulls of small animals with their heels. You never see the act as it’s thankfully kept off camera, but the sound and brief grimace of the woman is all you need to cringe. This is probably the segment the producers warned might be a bit disturbing and it is. The entire segment is done without dialogue, so you must visually pick up all the clues and when the cute little kitten is introduced, you know what’s going to happen, but can’t avoid the outcome.

Like the Dogfighting segment, this short casts a light on animal cruelty that is too easily lost in the shuffle of other less meaningful comments in the anthology. It’s effective and that’s all that matters, though I would never encourage anyone to watch it.

Q Is for Quack
Asian directors go in for the bizarre, but American directors go in for the Meta. Meta’s a term used to describe any suitably geeky examination of a concept by making the characters self-aware. Here, director Adam Wingard (You’re Next) and frequent collaborating writer Simon Barrett star in this short about how they came up with the idea to make their short using the provided guidelines. It’s in this short that the budget for each segment is revealed, making it hard to fathom how some directors managed to accomplish so much with so little. Instead of going in for some neat effects, the cost for American directors seems too much for these guys and they instead embark on a quest to figure out how to apply the letter Q, which involves buying a duck and deciding to shoot in live on camera.

Any American should immediately realize that this will be a ploy since filmed animal torture, cruelty or murder is entirely illegal. And as the final moments of the short play out, the obvious becomes tedious as one of the filmmakers “shoots” the other accidentally and the shot filmmaker kills the other in retaliation. Meanwhile, the funniest part of the entire short is the boom operator running in fright from the altercation. This is so bland, egotistical and pointless that you almost wish you could be the one to run away from it.

R Is for Removed
A surreal nightmare accompanies an ailing man whose putrid skin is carefully removed by a doctor and then rinsed in an emulsifying agent. The skin becomes celluloid, a strip of film that makes the disfigured prisoner a celebrity. The celebrity is then put on display in a glass box where adoring fans come out to touch and caress his maligned skin and celebrate his genius. As the subject is again cut and sloughed to make more cinema, he breaks free of his bonds and kills all who stand in his way, emerging from the medical facility only to die in an abandoned train yard before blood begins pouring from the sky.

The tortured subject’s face is never seen, but that’s so that it can imply any creative artist, director, actor or otherwise. These creative types abuse their bodies and minds in an effort to create art and entertain the populace, but their art is taken from them and commercialized, turning them into celebrities where fawning fans seem utterly oblivious to their filmmakers’ plight because they’ve got their product and don’t care about what has been altered.

Another fascinating segment is highlighted by an artistic interpretation of creative freedom and the rapid commercialization and selfishness of those who would exploit it. Initial reaction to this short might be to dismiss it as elitist, high brow cinema not deserving of a place in a horror/comedy anthology, but it’s shorts like these that make the effort worth it. After all, horror fans need to have their minds challenged every once in awhile, even if visceral thrills is all most of them go in for these days.

S Is for Speed
Assuming the style of a ’70’s genre action film, a woman attempts to escape a pursuant hooded figure. She stuffs her hostage into the trunk and tries to burn the hooded figure alive with a flamethrower before getting in the car and driving away. When the hooded figure catches up with her, she tries to offer her hostage for her safety, but the hooded figure says no and commends her for being a worthy opponent, but it’s her time, not the other womans.

The film seems rather superficial for most of its runtime and as the hooded figure is revealed as Death, we think we understand the purpose, but do not. As the woman collapses, we change scenes where the two women are laying in a filty hovel, obviously strung out on drugs. It’s an interesting commentary on the great chase of drug use leading to death, but ultimately it doesn’t have anywhere else to go. This is one of the higher end shorts in ABCs of Death, but isn’t among the best.

T Is for Toilet
The 26th letter to be selected was based on a contest won by TV director Lee Hardcastle. Hardcastle crafts a crudely animated adventure of a pair of parents attempting to potty-train their young son who has vivid nightmares of all the horrid things that could happen on the toilet. Finally, as he gets the nerve to go in, trepidation gets the best of him as the tank on the wall starts to become unhinged.

As his laughing father seemingly mocks the boy who now has his head at rest inside the toilet bowl, the tank crashes down killing the boy and permanently stifling the father. All this confirms the boy’s worst fears, but it doesn’t do much for the audience. Other than a traumatizing end result for new parents, this is one of the more blatantly manipulative films in the set, leaving no room for interpretation or audience engagement.

U Is for Unearthed
Noted British director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers), goes a different direction from many of the other films. While he still employs the first-person camera, the result is more interesting than the others using this method within this anthology.

This segment follows a group of grave diggers intent on destroying the undead evils that emerge from their dug-up tombs. As we watch the figures try various methods to kill the creature whose first-person point-of-view is on display, the audience comes to understand that this is likely a vampire. Stakes to the heart and beheadings give us the clues we need. It doesn’t have much to say on a psychological level, but it’s inventive enough to be compelling.

V Is for Vagitus (The Cry of a Newborn Baby)
In a futuristic police state, child reproduction is forbidden but only for those with the proper permits. As an enforcement unit goes in search of an illegal birth, the events turn deadly as the woman leading the charge is unable to stop the automted robot with her from killing everyone, including the child. We discover during this that the enforcer herself is wanting to have children and is going to be approved, but her attempts to have a child may be thwarted by a rogue robot.

Comic book artist Kaare Andrews directs this feature employing a lot of old techniques to create a futuristic environment on a shoestring budget. The results is surprisingly realistic, using the gritty post-apocalyptic style to avoid excessive production costs. The story is a bit weaker, though isn’t entirely formulaic. It discusses the potential flaws in anti-pregnancy laws and attempts to curb the creation of life. It’s a nice story, though one that doesn’t necessarily belong in a horror anthology.

W Is for WTF!
The most apropos title arrives four letters from the end of the alphabet and after a string of decent to excellent shorts, but culminating an sometimes tedious slog through two hours of short horror flicks. This time, and Metalocalypse director Jon Schnepp throws everything but the kitchen sink into his confusing, exotic, poorly-constructed apocalyptic saga.

Blending crappy animation, cheesy dialogue and horrific effects, Schnepp only succeeds in generating a film lacking in harmonious fluidity. What The Fuck is definitely a succinct title for this and it may easily be one of the worst segments in the entire production.

X Is for XXL
While his movies haven’t been successes with critics, Xavier Gens (Hitman) creates a compelling look at obesity and societal devotion to the ultimate ideal. An overweight woman walking through city streets and the subway must endure harangues and insults about her weight while being constantly bombarded by advertisements featuring a super-skinny woman comfortable with her body but not facing the same physiological problems as our heroine.

When she gets home, exhausted from the taunts and hateful of her body, she consumes vast quantities of disgusting foodstuffs before taking a razor blade and starting to carve up her body to get rid of her excess fat. All of this plays out while a callous commercial about healthy eating by the same “ideal” woman previously viewed on billboards and sidewalk advertisements. After a gut-wrenching few minutes watching the overweight woman cut into her body, she emerges from the bathtub glistening in blood, but having finally achieved the perfect ideal before collapsing dead.

There are few efforts that could so easily, though disturbingly, capture the negative impact our culture’s obsession with weight is. I have a few extra pounds myself, but would not be considered obese, yet I still feel the same stress of trying to look better and healthier and while I have it in my power to change, it is not my place, nor anyone else’s to admonish another person over their weight in such a way as to destroy their self-esteem and prevent them from building the desire to make that change. I’m torn between this and a handful of other shorts in this collection, but this is easily among the top five shorts.

Y Is for Youngbuck
Treevenge turned Jason Eisener into a viral success, leading to the box office failure Hobo with a Shotgun. Employing some of the verité style of the aforementioned projects, Eisener tackles the idea of child sexual abuse with Youngbuck. The events are tough to follow, but the essence is that a young boy is brutalized by an older man who is a janitor at a local school where the boy attends, the lecherous man watches the boys in the gym and after they leave flocks to the sweaty bench to lick it clean.

While this action takes place, we flashback to the abuse incident, which involves a dead deer whose head eventually ends up as part of the vengeful costume the boy adopts to confront his abuser, skewering him on the massive antlers of the young buck whose spirit now inhabits the boy. While this is more blatant in its narrative goals than Libido’s broader focus on sexual depravity, Eisener creates something of a fitting end to a repugnant human being without being overly preachy. I’d rank this in the upper portion of the middling-quality set of shorts.

Z Is for Zetsumetsu (Extinction)
The end of the film is ill-fittingly assigned to Japanese director Yoshihiro Nishimura. While his film is less outright idiotic than Fart was, the better aspects of this particular short are outweighed by the mind-numbing lunacy. There isn’t a particular plot to this final outing, which is an abstract examination of the relations between Western cultures and Japan, hinging on the post-nuclear era. There are references to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a morbid fascination with boobs and penises, and even a blatant reference to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Perhaps the premise will be more compelling to someone from Japan, but while I understand the purpose and what is being said, it’s done in such an off-the-wall, unappealing way that the impact is muted dramatically. It would be too easy to blame Japanese and Asian culture for the disconnect, but I wonder if it would have that much more relevance in Japan. Possibly, but by this point in the film, it doesn’t seem all that important anymore.

Review Written
November 22, 2013

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