The ABCs of Death review

Here are 27 directors, 26 short films and 26 letters from A to Z. Each letter denotes a word, each word is a method of expiration and each film fades to red.

The ABCs of Death as a project was put together by producers Ant Timpson and Tim League, inspired by alphabet teaching books and using their unique connections (Timpson founded the Incredibly Strange Film Festival in New Zealand, League is CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Chain and co-founder of the Austin, Texas based Fantastic Fest) they enticed a selection of up and coming horror and cult film directors to sign on. Each was given a letter, a time restriction, and a miniscule budget but after that complete creative freedom. Clearly the lottery of letters favoured some over others, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s entry for Q makes comic capital out of their inability to think of anything appropriately lethal starting with Q (the solution is one of the film’s lighter and more entertaining entries).

And here is the problem for any critic. Even revealing the words is spoiler territory, so I wont. Suffice to say, in most cases they are more imaginative than, say, B is for Bludgeoned to death with a shovel (that happens, but not in T is for That would be telling). The brevity of each story precludes tedious synopsising (although I’m sure some will feel compelled to do so).

I do not normally take notes at press screenings, but when watching 26 short films, some road mapping is necessary. I think these notes sum things up, as well as explaining why I do not normally take notes at screenings. In fact, you can skip the rest of this review and see Figure 1 at right (in the words of one facebook commentator: "You sent a 6-year-old critic?") for my actual critical notes from the screening. Except those notes represent snap judgements and I’ve done a little shuffling around since then.

Here is my considered review having slept on it.

The standout: D

Great: O, T, Y, X

Good: A, Q, U, V, W

Bad: E, F, G, I, S

Made me want to scrub my eyes with Vim: L

Made me want to punch Ti West in the face: M

So basically I liked more than I hated. Having said that, this is really a movie for fans of cult weirdness. It is going to be hard work for a mainstream audience – the lack of any wraparound story makes it essentially The Kentucky Fried Movie of horror films, some of the content is very challenging (in ways that are both good and bad), and the running time is substantial for an anthology film.

The hardcore may feel a little let down that more of the letters do not take the approach director Timo Tjahjanto, whose segment L goes so far into the realms of oozing sexualised horror (including an outrageous Georges Bataille reference) that one wonders it the BBFC examiner dosed off at that point. Perhaps the biggest disappointment on this score is Spasojevic’s segment, R. It isn’t bad as such, but the director of the notorious A Serbian Film produces a segment that ultimately fizzles out in head scratching obscurity. However Xavier Gens (Frontieres, The Divide) is on hand to bring the gore with a spectacularly moist X.

Among the blood, pus and bad taste, arthouse fans will find respite in the beautiful O from directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Fans of Amer will recognise this as their work from the first frame. The outstanding D from Marcel Sarmiento and Y from Hobo With A Shotgun director Jason Eisener are both visual and aural feasts.

Staple horror tropes and monsters don’t get much of a look in. For some reason toilets seem to have become the new destination for horror (as an aside how weird Hollywood got to this taboo first with the big budget attack of the alien shit weasels movie Dreamcatcher). Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers) is one of the few to go back to one the old favourites, albeit with a stylistic twist.

In the negative column, I am done with gory Japanese Gonzo horror and three segments in that style was at least two too many (specifically the wretched F and Z). While the international spread of directors is truly commendable with 26 letter to play with, only two directors are women, which is surely too few.

Keeping with the negativity, special mention has to be made of Ti West. The director of the highly regarded House of the Devil and The Innkeepers follows his odiously sexist segment of V/H/S with a short that is staggeringly lazy and both insulting and offensive. Libel laws prevent me speculating on where he spent his budget, but if I were the producers I would have sent M straight back.

Getting back to the good, it should be mentioned that the letter T was the subject of a public competition on the Drafthouse website, with submissions invited to fill the space. The eventual winner was Lee Hardcastle, a DIY claymation animator who has already risen some fame and notoriety since winning with his excellent online shorts Pingu’s The Thing (now Claycat’s The Thing post lawsuit threats from humourless children’s character rights holders) and the brilliant Claycat’s The Raid (so good is an extra with The Raid blu ray). Hardcastle’s effort is typically hilarious and one of the best of the 26.

There is enough good stuff here to merit a genre fan’s attention, perhaps not quite as much as one would have hoped. But D, L, O, T, Y, and X make it worth the effort.

The ABCs of Death at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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