S Is for Sequel, by Craig Schroeder
There seems to be two modi operandi for directors approached to make a short for the ABCs of Death anthology series. One, throw together the most shocking things you can dream up and stitch them into a six-minute narrative; or two, just make a good six minute horror film and let the shocking stuff fall into place. The first film in the ABCs of Death franchise–in which different directors are given a letter of the alphabet and asked to make a corresponding tale of death and horror– swarmed with the former. Even great modern horror directors (Adam Wingard, Ti West, Ben Wheatley, et al) got caught up in the shock-first mentality and ended up turning in fairly benign shorts. ABCs of Death 2 (which inexplicably dropped the “The” from the first film), featuring twenty-six shorts from thirty new directors, is an improvement. But just barely.
There are a few directors in ABCs 2 with a clear and unique vision, including E.L. Katz, who opens the film with “A” is for Amateur–the rare non-horror short that is as entertaining as it is disgusting. However, ABCs of Death 2 still suffers from the same problem that plagued the first installment (as well as most anthology films). There is very little consistency from film to film, both in tone and in enjoyment. Given the nature of the premise, there is no room to rearrange thematically opposing shorts. So if “A” is for Amateur–a tightly paced and inventive short about a clumsy hit-man–is great (it is), but “B” is for Badger–a lazy mockumentary in which a nature documentary crew does battle with an unseen super badger–is tedious (it is), there is a very jarring shift that causes the entire film to lose momentum. And the “funny” shorts are often preceded or seceded by deathly serious stories; “M” is for Masticate, which takes place almost entirely in slow motion as a half-naked, overweight man, high on bath salts, chases down pedestrians and chews on their faces, is followed immediately by “N” is for Nexus, a sobering tale of fate and consequences. Neither short is terrible (and neither is great), but in sequence, the very different tones make for an awkward transition.
But with all of my gripes about the format, there are some truly great entries this time around. If Katz started the show strong with “A”, than director Chris Nash finished, dropped the mic and walked off to a storm of applause with the letter Z. Nash’s “Z” is for Zygote is the most haunting and disturbing short of the series, following a woman who, for thirteen years, has taken a homeopathic treatment to keep her unborn child from being birthed until her estranged husband returns. The woman is without human contact, except for her unborn child, now fully formed inside of her and able to speak and reason. It’s everything the series fancies itself to be: nuanced while incredibly shocking, awfully violent and a stunning showcase of horror filmmaking. There are other standouts: Rodney Ascher’s “Q” is for Questionnaire is a delightfully bizarre film (featuring a performance by comedian and podcaster Jordan Morris) and “Y” is for Youth, a heartbreaking and personal story, is filled to the brim with scares and wonderfully gory special effects.
By my count, ABCs of Death 2 features only three female directors. Two of the three, Jen and Sylvia Soska, co-directed their “T” is for Torture-Porn, which, unfortunately, proves to be one of the weakest in the anthology, despite its good intentions. Three female directors is an upgrade on the first installment which featured only two women (Angela Bettis and Hélène Cattet). With a total of fifty-two films and fifty-seven directors, the ABCs films have managed a paltry four shorts by five women directors. Despite its lack of gender diversity, the ABCs of Death franchise is a great showcase for international directors. ABCs of Death 2 features directors from Nigeria, Argentina, England, France and Israel, among others. For a film that has made it a point to exhibit foreign directors and boasts “total creative control” in the opening crawl, it seems to be well within the producers means to muster up more than five women for every fifty-two men.
ABCs of Death 2 is an improvement on its predecessor; the featured filmmakers are more focused and some of the juvenile novelty of the first film has been excised (which, thankfully, means nothing as infantile as “F” for Fart or “T” for Toilet this time around). There’s stuff to love, but there’s just as much, if not more, to be bothered by. My solution going forward is to treat the ABCs of Death franchise like the band Weezer: pass on the next three or four entries and wait for the “Greatest Hits” edition.