Ominous Omnibus, by David Bax
Walking into a movie theater with the intention of seeing an anthology film is a dubious prospect. A large number of contributors, most often hamstrung by some unifying guideline, can’t plausibly all deliver great work. So when we agree to watch something like the new collection The ABCs of Death, we do so for reasons that are, in a way, less artistically pure than those that lead us to attend other films. Perhaps we like a few of the directors. Perhaps we are fans of the genre. Perhaps we are enticed by the gimmick. In any case, it’s more curiosity than the desire for emotional or intellectual catharsis that attracts us. Any of the above motivations are perfectly suitable excuses for seeing ABCs and the film will meet but rarely exceed such tempered expectations.
Here’s the deal. 26 filmmakers or filmmaking teams, most of whom work chiefly in horror or its outlying subgenres, are each assigned a letter of the alphabet. They must imagine a way to die that has to do with that letter and make a short film detailing it. Points, it would seem, are rewarded for cleverness.
Due to my lack of intimate knowledge of these splattery micro-genres, there were only a few directors of whom I was already aware. Of those, the results are rather unfortunate with the one major exception being Nacho Vigalondo’s (Timecrimes, Extraterrestrial) subtly presented yet horrifically, realistically, sickeningly violent “A Is for Apocalypse.” It’s one of the strongest and most darkly comic entries (and competition is stiff here in the field of dark comedy). After that, the familiar names fall flat. Actress Angela Bettis, so great in the under-seen masterpiece May, directs a silly, film-student level interpretation of a common urban legend with “E Is for Exterminate.” Ti West, whom I remember being a talented director at some point, disappoints for the second anthology in a row, after V/H/S. His “M Is for Miscarriage” looks to have been conceived, shot and edited in the space of an afternoon. Speaking of V/H/S, Adam Wingard’s entry here, “Q Is for Quack,” is slightly more tolerable than in that previous compilation but is also flatly predictable. Finally, director Srdjan Spasojevic (A Serbian Film) continues to baffle me. With “R Is for Removed,” he again somehow does work that is both disgustingly outlandish and deadening in its dullness.
Plenty of the bad filmmaking on display also exists outside the realm of the more known directors. The gimmick of the film is already jokey enough. Added to that is the decision to hold off on showing the title of each film until that chapter has concluded, turning the reveal of what each letter stands for into a punch-line. Often this prankishness works but just as often it doesn’t. Shorts such as Yûdai Yamaguchi’s “J is for Jidai-Geki” have a humorous tone but never achieve a laugh while Timo Tjahjanto’s “L Is for Libido” is more clever than funny but not nearly so clever as it thinks it is. With other films, the inherent comedy of the work seems to have been lost on the directors who turn in pretentiously self-serious entries like Jorge Michel Grau’s pointless torture picture “I Is for Ingrown” and Kaare Andrews’ hackneyed sci-fi/action muddle “V Is for Vagitus.” Simon Rumley misses the point entirely with his after-school melodrama “P Is for Pressure.”
With all that out of the way, let us now focus on the good entries. The comedy works when it’s either a fully realized and unique brand of weirdness – such as Noboru Iguchi’s “F Is for Fart” or Jason Eisener’s “Y Is for Youngbuck” – or when it’s just plain funny, like with Lee Hardcastle’s contest-winning addition, “T Is for Toilet.” Even more successful in some cases are those that abandon narrative altogether, like Bruno Forzani and Héléne Cattet’s “O Is for Orgasm,” which uses a series of precise visual metaphors such as bursting bubbles and tightening belts to illustrate a woman’s “little death.” Given that the film rigidly sticks to its alphabetical delivery system, it can only be chalked up to pure luck that it begins and ends with two of its strongest works, the aforementioned “A Is for Apocalypse” and Yoshihiro Nishimura’s completely batshit “Z Is for Zetsumetsu,” an assaultive, phantasmagoric, psychedelic, violent and pornographic reinterpretation of Dr. Strangelove that features – among many other psychotic tidbits – the Nazi swastika rearranging itself into a metallic version of Japan’s Rising Sun and an illustration of the attacks of September 11th, 2001 to which a description could not do justice.
“Zetsumetsu” is the most perfect ending imaginable in that, like “Apocalypse” and “Orgasm,” it finds ways to exist within the project’s restrictions while also making itself worthwhile as a short film removed from the whole. I can recommend the three pieces mentioned above with no hesitation. As to the entire work, I’m not sure what good a review can really do. If The ABCs of Death doesn’t sound like something you’ll like, you won’t. But if it does, you definitely will.