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By LastCaress1972 January 28, 2017
This is my third pass at writing down my thoughts on The ABCs of Death. The first pass - as soon as I'd seen it - was almost completely negative, which in the light of day probably wasn't fair. The second pass was too positive; it just wasn't true. All I know for sure from both is that I want to rate it 3/5 AND label it: "Recommended". This review is going to be similarly all-over-the-place, which I guess is entirely apt for a film as scattershot as this one.
Essentially: 25 directors from all corners of the globe (plus one competition winner) were assigned a letter of the alphabet and tasked with making a short film - five minutes or so, give-or-take - relating to the letter of the alphabet to which they'd been assigned and to the subject of death (according to one of the entries - Adam Wingard's Q - they were assigned a budget of $5000 each although how true that is, I don't know). Beyond that, each director has free reign over what form their short takes. And that's it. There's no wraparound tale (V/H/S), no arcing narrative running through the stories (Trick 'R Treat), no recurring characters (Pulp Fiction) or motifs (Coffee & Cigarettes).
It should go without saying of course that this leads to wildly differing results, not only in terms of content but in terms of success as well. That's true of any anthology piece but it's even more acute here given a) the incredibly short time allotted to each piece and b) the "A, B, C..." nature of the film which prevents the film's producers Ant Timpson and Tim League from placing the shorts in an order that might build a momentum, leaving the best 'til last (in fact, the very worst comes last, of which more later). The bad entries - and there are more than enough - are SO bad that it almost derails the entire movie. As I said, last night having just watched it I felt very negatively about the whole experience. However, there ARE some good entries and even a few great ones, and... well, let's just go through them (I'm not going to name them by title since one or two titles - which are only revealed at the end of each short, not at the beginning - represent pretty decent plot reveals in their own right, so to print them here would constitute a spoiler. I'll just refer to them by their letter):
"A", "B" & "C" - The movie's off to a strong start with three Spanish-language tales from Spain, Argentina and Chile respectively; "A" kicking things off in start-as-we-mean-to-go-on gory fashion about a woman attacking her husband, the context around which is not given to us until the very end, "B" about a fairy tale that may not be as fictional as the protagonists suppose and "C" about a Twilight Zone-style time-travel paradox.
"D" - From Marcel Sarmiento (Deadgirl), this dialogue-free piece about a scuzzy backsreet illegal-gambling fight 'twixt a man and a ferocious Labrador (I know, I know, but trust me) is rightly garnering praise all around the internetz as the best piece of the bunch. That this short is in the same movie as some of the poorer later efforts is an affront to good moviemaking, really. It deserves better. At this stage, The ABCs of Death is absolutely rocking.
"E" - A slightly lighter, Creepshow-style effort here about a guy trying to rid himself of a rather persistent spider. Many of us can relate. Decent entry. We're in really good shape at this point.
"F", "J" & "Z" - I've lumped these together since they're all from Japanese directors attached to the Sushi Typhoon production company, and if that means anything to you then you'll know what to expect from these entries and whether you're going to love them or absolutely loathe them (there's little middle ground; it's essentially all latex-heavy "zany" super-bizarre splatter/humour. Ever seen any of Peter Jackson's early films? Bad Taste, Brain Dead and the like? That, x 10,000). Personally, I detested them. "F", by Noboru Iguchi, a man who used to make adult specialist fetish videos for the Japanese porn market (example titles: Real Beautiful Young Lady Stools: Lolita Lavatory and Beautiful Girl Excretion School, both of which point to some degree towards "F"'s subject matter) and about a girl who would rather inhale the... um, gases of her lesbian crush than those of a toxic volcano which has belched poisonous fumes into the air, killing everyone, was so shockingly poor - although my girlfriend laughed out loud at it - that even though it was the first truly weak entry in The ABCs of Death, it soured me and altered my stance on the film for the remaining duration of the movie. "J" - about what appears at first to be one man putting another off his stride by pulling funny faces - was easily the best and most restrained of these three, but it was still unimpressive. "Z" - by Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police), a highly-regarded writer/director and effects artist in Japan - is arguably the shittest thing I've ever seen. God knows what it's about, it's one of those sorts of films. What I CAN tell you is that there's a naked bitch shooting root vegetables out of her cunny at another naked bitch with a huge inflatable cock (complete with breadknife cock-eye attachment), whilst some guy apeing Peter Sellers' Dr. Strangelove character watches on. With his cock out. I'm making it sound miles better than it is, it's truly dreadful.
"G" - First-person-perspective film about a guy who goes surfing. From Aussie director Andrew Traucki, he correctly guessed that everyone would go over-the-top with their efforts and decided to go the other way. More thoughtful, gore-free, more contemplative. Unfortunately he went TOO far. It feels unfinished, and dull. Possibly the most forgettable entry in the film.
"H" - A bizarre live-action cartoon from Norwegian director Thomas Malling (Norwegian Ninja) featuring a WWII Allied forces bulldog falling for the wily charms of a writhing Nazi pussycat in a burlesque club. Cue eyes out on stalks and tongues rolling out of mouths like carpets in full Looney-Tunes style. Meh.
"I" & "R" - I'm lumping these together not because they're connected at all but because, to me, they're both similar inasmuch as they're clearly very well made and photographed, there is clearly talent here, but IMO they both represented wasted opportunities. "I", by Mexican Jorge Michel Grau, lacked sufficient context around its central image of a woman tied up inside an empty bath while a possibly apprehensive man injects her with... something. "R", from A Serbian Film's Srdjan Spasojevic about some sort of hulking prisoner whose skin when peeled by his captors turns into reels of film (I think) is obviously saying something to me in very blunt subtext, but I guess I'm too stupid to get it.
"K" & "T" - Two animated shorts, both toilet-related. "K" - a cartoon about a woman trying to flush a sh*t she's just taken - didn't do it for me at all although again, my gf laughed, but "T" - a claymation effort and the entry which won it's place on The ABCs of Death via a competition as opposed to being a piece entered by a director who'd been invited to participate - is surprisingly good, concerning a toddler's fears over graduating from the potty to the grown-up bathroom.
"L" - Powerful and disturbing entry from Indonesia, centering around sexual perversion and... um, performance, let's say. Some scenes - thankfully just off-camera - are among the most upsetting of the movie. Well made, glad I saw it, don't imagine I'll watch it again anytime soon.
"M" - Looking around numerous sites, this entry from Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, V/H/S segment: Second Honeymoon) appears to have polarised people, some suggesting that it's one of the more powerful entries, it sticks with the viewer and it's typical (in the good way) of West's output; basically, nothingshappenningit'sallabitdullandthenBANG! All-of-a-sudden, a kick to the bags right at the end, others deriding it as lazy, and even an insult to the project. I agree with the former argument although I understand the latter, West's entry being easily the shortest of these shorts, and the most uneventful. If they really WERE given five grand each to make these films, Ti West must have trousered most of it. His piece could've been done on a fiver. Still, where some have seen that as an affront, I see it as pretty cool that the director can still pack the same trademark wallop on so very little. You'll note I haven't mentioned what it's about, but it's honestly so short that I can't; to say anything at all is to spoil it. Um, a woman needs to use a plunger. How about that? That's as much as I'm saying.
"N" - A comedy piece centering around a parrot that won't shut up - ever seen that episode of Frasier where Niles' parrot won't shut up? Same shtick here, pretty much - from Thai director Banjong Pisanthanakun (Shutter). Light and undemanding, not a great piece by any means but a welcome bit of relief that for once has managed to BE light without being zany or bizarre.
"O" - I'm going to "spoil" this one since it has no discernible plot as such anyway: "O" is for "Orgasm", and it's a waste of time which most closely resembles one of those pretentious and abstract perfume commercials that clog up the TV around Christmas time. I fully expected someone to growl "Chanel. Eau de Parfum" in voiceover at the end. Rubbish.
"P" - Dialogue-free, quick-cut, gritty and well shot piece from British director Simon Rumley (Club le Monde) about a woman doing... well, what she needs to to pay the bills. Ooh, my girlfriend didn't like this one.
"Q" & "W" - Two "meta" entries, both concerning the tribulations of the directors themselves as they struggle with what to do as the subject of their short film for The ABCs of Death. And they couldn't be more different, Adam Windgard's (You're Next, V/H/S segment: Tape 56) "Q" being a light, self-deprecating and humourous tale of Adam's attempts to "actually" kill an animal on his segment, and Jon Schnepp's (Metalocalypse, from [Adult Swim]) "W" being, well, an absolute mess. In fact, sod it, I'm going to spoil this one too; "W" is for "WTF", and I suspect that's because the director f*cked up his random collage of goofy splatter images so badly that even he couldn't make hide nor hair of it by the end. Coming as close to the end of the film as this does and in tandem with the similarly unwatchable "Z", these shorts are what sour the film almost irretrievably, and probably explain why I was so very negative immediately upon having seen it.
"S" - From British director Jake West (Doghouse), what appears to be a purposely retro, washed-out, poorly-acted car chase involving Death himself becomes... something else. I really liked this one, once it had played out. Very good.
"U" - A final-reel fight scene told from the monster's perspective, made by Kill List director Ben Wheatley and reuniting Kill List stars Neil Maskell & Michael Smiley. Nothing wrong with it but I came away disappointed anyway. That was probably down to my expectations for this one though.
"V" - from Canadian writer/artist Kaare Andrews, and you can tell that this man specialises in superhero comic books. Another mis-step, this one, although this time it's an honest mistaken attempt to make his micro-budget spread over an ambitious futuristic action sequence featuring robots, mutants and Robocop-sized gunplay. At least it was a stab at something substantial, though. Too many of these directors just decided they couldn't tell a tale with the time/budget restraints, and went bizarre/abstract instead.
"X" - From French director Xavier Gens (Frontier(s), Hitman), this is a brutal, grisly and memorable piece about an overweight woman, mocked constantly for her weight (or at least, perceiving herself as being mocked; whatever they may think, grown adults aren't generally as in-your-face cruel as this womans tormentors are as she commutes to her apartment), who decides that she really wants to lose weight. Like, NOW.
"Y" - From Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun, a film I thought was great the first time I saw it, a little tedious the second time and just poor the third time), this really pretty good dialogue-free tale of a creepy school janitor with an unhealthy interest in the young boys within is marred for me by the same purposely retro red/green saturated lighting and hokey eighties synth soundtrack which served initially as such a successful parody/homage in Hobo with a Shotgun but which was maybe SO effective that it ended up being hard to tolerate. In this short, these things just detract from what is, as I said, a decent tale.
Phew! Well, there you have it. A very mixed bag of a movie, and ultimately I think one who's ambition overstretches its limited reach. 26 tales is just TOO much, both for the filmmakers who can't do enough with the time allotted AND the viewers, for whom 26 shorts - some incredibly grisly, some in shockingly poor taste - represents a trial of endurance. Because of these fundamental flaws and because of the numerous meh-to-poor-to-absolute-dogsh*t short films on display here I can't possibly mark The ABCs of Death too highly, but because of the superior, more memorable pieces I nevertheless have to recommend that you see it for yourselves. At the very least, if there's something you don't like there'll be something completely different to look at in a few minutes.
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