The ABCs Of Death (2012)

SEPTEMBER 22, 2012


Anyone who thinks we're not seeing enough anthology horror films should be pretty happy about the past year - V/H/S, The Theatre Bizarre, the US release of Little Deaths, the upcoming 5 Senses Of Fear project... and then The ABCs Of Death, possibly the most high profile since it seems to be the most ambitious: a full length film comprised of 26 short films, one for each letter of the English alphabet. Perhaps to make up for the fact that the concept won't make much sense to a foreign language country, a hefty number of the shorts aren't in English, as at least 15 countries are represented here.

As I expected, there isn't a wraparound or bookend segment tying all of this together. One could go on Youtube and find 26 horror-centric shorts for each letter and more or less create their own version of the film. The shorts don't share a common theme (beyond death), the tone ranges from absurd (there's a shocking amount of fart/poop humor) to deadly serious (one short tackles the mass murder of women in Mexico), and the technical quality also jumps around (we even get a few aspect ratio changes). The only unifying theme is that they all end on a shot of red, at which point the title appears. Some of these transitions work wonderfully, others feel forced, like the director quickly scribbled "and then we pan over to something that can be red" in their script before calling "action" for the first time.

But the best is when you're unsure what the letter could stand for, something that usually causes a laugh when revealed. Some I didn't quite get (producer Tim League explained some of them have been changed - this was a very close but not entirely final version of the film), others were pretty obvious from the start ("T is for Toilet" is a good example), but I suspect the reason there hasn't been a widely circulated list of the films is because, not unlike Edgar Wright's "Don't", saying the name of some might spoil the surprise/punchline. I'm sure it can be put together with enough effort on Google, but to the best of my knowledge, there's no master list.

And that's a problem, because I figured there WAS and thus just wrote down a word or two for each entry, figuring that I could put it up to a master list and have my memory jogged enough to write a couple lines on each piece, as I would usually do for an anthology. Alas, right after seeing the film I was hustled into a gym where I had a few beers and proceeded to play part of the entourage for my Badass-in-Chief Devin Faraci, who was engaging in a "Fantastic Debate" with filmmaker Joe Swanberg (who was behind one of the V/H/S segments, and starred in another directed by Ti West, an ABCs contributor who also trained Swanberg for his fight). So that plan has gone out the window - without the context of the filmmaker responsible (or even the names), I feel it'd be a bit disingenuous to try to review the film on a short by short basis.

Besides, it's an anthology with TWENTY SIX segments! There's no way in hell I'd love every entry, and there's no way in hell YOU would either. And the ones I loved will be the ones you hated, and vice versa. With pretty much every genre I've ever used (with tags, i.e. ghost, serial killer, zombie...) represented in some form or other, not to mention the varying skills the 26 filmmakers bring to the table, it'd be more of a recap than a review anyway. And again, I don't want to spoil the surprise of any of their titles (plus, like V/H/S, I think finding out who was behind this or that slice of insanity is also part of the fun).

But I took the time to compose this thing in the dark on an Alamo order card, so I refuse to let them go to waste! Thus, here are my notes, just to give you a look at my intended process (and titillate you!):

A - Eh
B - Heh
C - What?
D - Turns around
E - Great concept
F - Really?
G - Not great white?
H - Nonsense
I - Wrong movie
J - Pointless
K - Animated poop
L - Boundaries
M - Punchline
N - Music video
O - Amer
P - Pointless
Q - !!!
R - More Japanese Nonsense
S - No
T - Yes!!!
U - Too long
V - Feature?
W - Q better
X - French
Y - Too much buildup
Z - Go out strong?

I won't bother explaining them all (in some cases, I can't - I have no idea why I just wrote "No" for S), but a few deserve clarification. For Q, the 3 exclamation points mean I loved it, and in retrospect it's even more impressive as W had a similar gag but didn't execute it nearly as well. F is for "Fart", which isn't a surprise since the whole thing is just two girls farting, and it's from Japan which should explain my comment for R. And for D, "turns around" means it was the weakest yet at first, but turned around and became the best (and remained at/around the top for the rest of the film). And my excitement for T might as well be explained, since that was the one that won the filmmaker contest (the other 25 were handpicked by the producers; fans voted on the 26th) and has been seen in full. I love stop motion/claymation, and while I'm not crazy about toilet humor, it came along when the movie needed this sort of aesthetic diversion.

On that note, I should point out that the letters B, N, and Y have been swapped. What I saw as Y is now B, B is now N, and N is now Y (so when you see it, if for some reason you want to compare these notes: B will be "too much buildup", N will be "heh", and Y will be "Music video"). Obviously that doesn't help me much, since A and Z underwhelmed me, thus preventing the film from starting OR finishing strong, but again, those two might be your favorite segments which will have you walk away feeling even better about the film as a whole. As far as I know, those were the only swaps, and I think the film will play even better that way - moving N near the end (as it became Y) in particular is great, as both it and L dealt with a particularly taboo topic, and seeing it more or less back to back was a bit much.

And that's far from the only touchy issue that's on display here. Animal lovers will have particular trouble with a few segments - I had to look away during one sequence in "P", in fact. A number of segments are intended to provoke a reaction, so the attempts at shock value and outdoing one another can get a bit tiresome as you enter the film's second half. A bit of repetition sets in (TWO "Robo Fart Ninja" shorts, TWO self-mutilated women in the bathroom, TWO stories about poop, etc), and a touch of sensory overload - short as they may be, it's still 26 different narratives coming at you in succession. I'm at a loss to choose what would be the ideal setting for this particular film - a theater filled with movie fans, cheering and jeering (and having plenty of folks to discuss it with afterward), or at home, where you can take a break or two and let a few of them digest a bit before going back for more.

But either way it's an easy film to recommend. No one will love every segment, but I'd be willing to bet no one would hate them all either. With so many great filmmakers here, it's awesome to see them "collaborating" in one mega-movie; it's sort of the Expendables of modern independent horror. And like that film, a sequel might even attract bigger names for a second go-around - it seems this could be an annual release, with a revolving talent pool and different ways of putting it together (having the films connect somehow, or maybe using another alphabet). And the sheer variety is admirable on its own - even in this slightly changed order, the pacing was more or less perfect as you'd get a short, jokey one, followed by something a bit scarier, which would be followed by longish one with a twist ending... it's like a well designed roller coaster in that regard, balancing the highs and lows to optimize the viewing experience. Well done, all.

What say you?


  1. YES!! I just found out about this film and it looks good! I can't find out when it will be released in theaters/DVD.

  2. To follow up, I am disappointed to read that there are a bunch of foreign language "shorts". I can't stand foreign films, but maybe, as you mentioned, there will be a sequel with bigger directors.


Movie & TV Show Preview Widget