The ABCs of Death: Film Review

The ABCs of Death - H 2013
Less a horror primer than broad, intermittently intriguing survey.

Directors of horror and suspense films “The Innkeepers,” “V/H/S,” “Down Terrace” and “Hobo With a Shotgun” contribute to this anthology of 26 short films.

Perhaps seeking to fill the void between installments of the VHS horror-compilation franchise after picking up the second installment S-VHS at Sundance for release later this year, Magnolia Pictures is offering The ABCs of Death as a potential placeholder through its prolific Magnet Releasing genre label. Stronger in concept than execution, this anthology of short films may initially draw theatrical audiences on the strength of the filmmakers’ credentials, although wider appeal is likely to be garnered with digital formats.

Producers Ant Timpson and Drafthouse Films’ Tim League hit on the idea of compiling 26 short films -- one for each letter of the alphabet -- into a feature-length program and showcasing directors from a variety of different countries with projects focusing on death as the central theme. Some admirably recognizable talents were selected, including The InnkeepersTi West, V/H/S contributor Adam Wingard, Down Terrace and Sightseers director Ben Wheatley, recent Sundance breakout director Jorge Michel Grau (We Are What We Are), Timo Tjahjanto (whose “Safe Haven” short was a disturbingly memorable contribution to the upcoming S-VHS) and cult favorite Yoshihiro Nishimura of Tokyo Gore Police.

Running times vary from just a few minutes to as many as six or seven, forcing the filmmakers to significantly compress their often gruesome narratives. Both the originality and quality of the shorts are equally variable, with the majority coming off as mere genre exercises rather than fully conceived films. Leading off with the first letter of the Roman alphabet, Nacho Vigalondo’s “Apocalypse” isn’t nearly as ominous as the title suggests, focusing on a housewife who bloodily dispatches her bedridden husband after unsuccessfully poisoning him for months, impatient for him to meet his demise.

With the possible exception of “Dogfight,” Marcel Sarmiento’s gritty take on a cage fighter who battles a vicious dog barehanded, and the deliriously twisted and scatological “Fart” from Noboru Iguchi, the series doesn’t really hit its stride until about halfway through, with Tjahjanto’s “Libido.” Strapped down in heavy wooden chairs, two captive men are forced to pleasure themselves for a masked audience while watching various live sex acts, with the second-place finisher summarily and grotesquely executed. Shot in an urgent, feverish style, the wan, desaturated color scheme sharply contrasts with the extremity of the men’s dire predicament.

“Nuptials” from Banjong Pisanthanakun, the Thai director of horror film Shutter, injects some welcome humor into the grim proceedings. A young man presents his unimpressed girlfriend with a colorful parakeet as a gift, but when the bird voices her boyfriend’s wedding proposal and he proffers a ring, she interrupts her meal preparation to show her appreciation. The bird, however, has more to reveal, repeating a conversation that apparently took place between the man and his secret lover during a recent tryst, a disclosure that quickly enrages the knife-wielding girlfriend. Pisanthanakun adopts a style akin to a wholesome TV commercial, which provides an amusing contrast to the rapidly escalating onscreen violence.

Among the animated shorts, which include the bizarre “Hydro-Electric Diffusion” and the trifling “Klutz,” Lee Hardcastle’s claymation “Toilet,” about a boy who’s afraid to use the commode lest it devour him, is the most successful, tapping into subconscious fears with a sly sense of humor. Brit filmmaker Wheatley’s “Unearthed,” featuring a crazed mob chasing a vampire through the nighttime countryside from the undead’s point of view, begs for a longer treatment to play out the conflict between the victim and the aggressors.

Before ultimately closing with the wildly irreverent horror spoof “Zetsumetsu” from Japanese director Yoshihiro Nishimura, Xavier Gens’ French film “XXL” is as impressive for its social commentary as the blood-soaked special effects. An obese woman makes her way home as she’s publicly ridiculed by passersby at almost every turn. Arriving at her apartment, she immediately begins binging, indiscriminately consuming the contents of her copiously stocked refrigerator, then quickly regrets her behavior. Taking a knife to her abundant flesh, she begins slicing away the fat even as she struggles to maintain consciousness with increasing blood loss. Shooting in a realistic, unflinching style, Gens capably portrays the woman’s desperation to adapt to a cultural norm with a sometimes unrealistic fixation on body image.

More erratic than consistently frightful, The ABCs of Death might have benefited from firmer curatorial guidance, but at least it’s laid the groundwork for developing a number of potentially effective feature-length films.

Opens: March 8 (Magnet Releasing)
Production companies: Drafthouse Films, Timpson films
Directors: Nacho Vigalondo, García Bogliano, Diaz Espinoza, Marcel Sarmiento, Angela Bettis, Noboru Iguchi, Andrew Traucki, Thomas Cappelen Malling, Jorge Michel Grau, Yudai Yamaguchi, Anders Morgenthaler, Timo Tjahjanto, Ti West, Banjong Pisanthanakun, Bruno Forzani, Helene Cattet, Simon Rumley, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, Srdjan Spasojevic, Jake West, Lee Hardcastle, Ben Wheatley, Kaare Andrews, Jon Schnepp, Xavier Gens, Jason Eisener, Yoshihiro Nishimura
Producers: Ant Timpson, Tim League
Executive producer: Tom Quinn
No rating, 129 minutes