The ABCs of Death (2012)

Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, May 2013

Synopsis: An anthology  of 26 short films, each named for a different letter of the alphabet, each directed by different genre filmmakers, and each focused upon death.

Review: “I’m sorry, it was going to be better – but we didn’t have time.”

The unnamed speaker has been poisoning her husband for months, intending to murder him slowly and inconspicuously – but now she has changed tack, messily stabbing him and then flinging boiling oil over his face. The reason for this sudden haste, hinted at by the escalating sounds of mayhem coming from outside the couple’s apartment window, is finally revealed in the title that follows: “A for Apocalypse.” If the world is about to come apart and everyone is going to die, then this most coldly vindictive of wives is damned if she won’t kill her husband first. Nacho (TimeCrimes) Vigalondo’s piece makes a perfect introduction to The ABCs of Death, an anthology of 26 short tales of death by genre directors from fifteen different countries. Not only does his chapter ensure that the collection aptly begins at The End, but it also rather neatly sets forth the limitations of the omnibus format. No doubt Vigalondo (and many of the other contributors) might, like the wife, have preferred being able to craft a better, less inelegant death, but there is only so much that one can do when there is so little time.

Like David Lynch’s more economically unnerving short The Alphabet (1968), The ABCs of Death was inspired by a dream, but its nightmarish abecedary, though certainly drawing on horror, depends far more upon shock tactics and grotesque abjection than on genuine frights – the latter requiring a slow building of tension impossible in so short a format. Shock too is most effective when deployed sparingly, so that the effect of the individual chapters here is somewhat deadened by their relentless succession, despite the contrasting range of filmmaking styles and sensibilities on offer in a variety of media (POV camerawork in Andrew Traucki’s G and Ben Wheatley’s U, animation in Anders Morgenthaler’s K and Jon Schepp’s W, claymation in Lee Hardcastle’s hilarious T). By the time, some two hours after Vigalondo’s first instalment, we have reached the scattergun offensive against good taste that is Yoshihiro (Tokyo Gore Police) Nishimura’s Z, even those viewers unfamiliar (and therefore not yet jaded) by the CG-inflected bubblegum splattercore that typifies the oeuvre of its director will nonetheless have had their reactions muted by sheer attrition. It’s a case of shock and bore.

This is, in part, the subject of Timo (Macabre) Tjahjanto’s startling L, whose protagonist, bound to a chair and forced to masturbate competitively (on pain of death) to a series of increasingly repellent scenarios even as his juices run dry, holds a mirror not just to the paradoxical pleasures afforded by horror viewing, but also to the specific experience of viewing The ABCs of Death itself. Other highlights include Xavier (The Divide) Gens’ confronting carve-up of body-image obsession in X, Simon (Red White & Blue) Rumley’s deftly edited descent into underclass exploitation with P (in fact the segment most grounded in the real world, and the only one in which no human death features), and Srdjan (A Serbian Film) Spasojevic’s use of Cronenbergian idioms to allegorise the death of film itself in the bewildering R. With its sensory overload, colour filtering and giallo-inflected abstraction, O is unmistakably directed by Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet (the duo behind 2009’s Amer), giving the lie to the assertion in the film’s opening text that “the following feature was created by 26 directors” (there are 26 episodes, but 27 directors). The punch of some sections comes in the paratext: the best joke, e.g., in Thomas (Norwegian Ninja) Malling’s H is the utterly unguessable title revealed at the end, while the true impact of I, Jorge (We Are What We Are) Grau’s disturbing riff on torture porn, is delivered not in the film itself, but in an explanatory text that does not appear until the feature’s closing credits.

As with most anthologies, the quality of the entries varies greatly, and the talents of, e.g., Ti West (The Innkeepers), Ben Wheatley (Kill List), Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way To Die) and Marcel Sarmiento (Deadgirl) are shown off to much greater effect in their feature-length works than in the weak sauce that they spill here. There are some memorable moments in The ABCs of Death, but  reports of a follow-up alphabetic run will hardly spell enthusiasm for filmgoers.

Anton Bitel