By Adam Blampied.
Not ten seconds ago, The ABCs of Death finished and for many minutes I lay motionless on my sofa, foetal, wrapped in blankets, contemplating the mewling nightmare that had just kicked open the front doors to my brain and announced in vaguely-subtitled Japanese that I didn’t live there anymore.
I do not know what I have just seen.
Just to claw my attention away from the bleeding wound that is the film’s actual contents, let me tell you about the format. That at least I can begin to describe in human words. Producers Ant Thompson and Tim League approached 25 directors from all over the globe and gave them each a letter of the alphabet and five thousand dollars. The directors were then tasked with creating a short film each about Death, the title of which was to begin with their assigned letter. These 25 films – and a 26th chosen from submissions from the public, – have been sewn together with a rusty needle and human hair into the anthology piece that is The ABCs of Death or as I like to call it, Slaughter, Je T’Aime. It’s a fantastic gimmick and the sheer volume of variety here (not just of filmmaking style, but of personal directorial taste) tempts me to give it a default recommendation, just because it’s such a curio. But that would be wrong of me.
Ok, back to the film’s actual contents… No. Not ready. I choose not to. Back to the format.
Because the film are played alphabetically from A to Z, one of the pleasures of the film’s gleefully playful premise is trying to guess the name of each segment – only revealed once the segment’s over – based on the horrors onscreen and knowing which letter it is. Some titles, once revealed, shed new light on some of the more abstract pieces – a kaleidoscopic visual beat poem of bubbles, flesh and burning gains new coherence when you discover it’s called O is for Orgasm – and some titles serve as a grim (or groan-worthy) punchline to the action.
Amongst the supergroup of directors (much like the Avengers, only with more matted hair and vomit screams) are Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers), Xavier Gens (Hitman), Ti West (The House of the Devil) and Nacho Vigalondo (Oscar-nominated short 7:35 in the Morning), and each and every director was given total creative freedom for their segment. Taste was no object, censorship was no object, and nothing was off limits. The producers wound up their artists and let them pinwheel, and that was the problem. If you tell a classroom of sugar-rushed kids to run off and bring back “anything”, some are going to bring you back a shiny pebble. Some are going to bring you a handful of what used to be a dog.
Ok then. The actual shorts themselves. Fine. I’ll try to keep them to a minimum but beyond this point, here be spoilers.
Let’s start with the Good ones, sadly all too few in number.
The film opened very strongly with Nacho Vigalondo’s A is for Apocalypse, a bittersweet tale about a woman’s plan to slowly poison her husband over a number of months being cut short by an impending cataclysm, forcing her to try and finish him quickly with whatever kitchen implements she has on hand. Gruesome, funny and surprisingly tender, Vigalondo set the bar immediately high.
Marcel Sarmiento’s D is for Dogfight was a mesmerising piece about a man and a dog battling in a man/beast fight club. Though it’s stressed in the credits that the piece not only met but exceeded the standards of animal care required by law, it’s an intensely uncomfortable but oddly beautiful piece, shot almost entirely in slow-motion, the skin and muscle of man and definitely-real dog alike rippling with each violent blow, screams and barks distorted into low jungle sirens.
X is for XXL is possibly the hardest watch of them all, a savage, intensely-violent short depicting a bullied overweight woman taking matters, and her extraneous flesh, into her own hands. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed watching this one but this was that rare case of the short’s theme actually being served by the graphic nature of the violence, rather that gore for gore’s sake.
Ben Wheatley’s U for Unearthed was a brief but effective little chiller, shot from the POV of an escaping vampire. Michael Smiley makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as a priest and some nicely observed dialogue adds substance to a short that could’ve been over before it began.
Q for Quack was my personal favourite, a perfectly judged comedic piece of meta-storytelling charting the frustrations of the filmmakers, playing themselves, in their quest to make their short having been saddled with the letter Q.
Now for the Bad ones. There’ll be no joy in this for me.
Some of them left me entirely cold, being either so brief (C, E, M) or so self-consciously cryptic (O, R) that their impact is minimal. For the rest, there were animations, both drawn (K) and claymation (T), those comedic in tone, those that are deadly serious, those that mimiced the work of Robert Rodriguez so hard it came off as sycophancy, but it was the unpleasantness of it all that ultimately killed the project.
Now don’t get me wrong. I know it’s a horror film and as such it shouldn’t exactly be a whimsy picnic, but the problem with this being an anthology show is that, because they’ve only got between 5 and 10 minutes to be done, and because they have total control, the directors throw nothing but nastiness at us from A-Z. Some take the time to pace their work to let moments of calm or nuance shine through but so much of the 2 hour running time is unrelenting revulsion, especially in the second half, that it feels like nothing more than assault.
And then there are the Crazy ones… Jesus. Unicycling. Christ.
The majority of the films are, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, “all the way batshit.” In no particular order, here’s a taster selection of stuff that happens in these damn mindgriefs: a woman gets farted to death and sucked into a gas kingdom located within the arse of her beloved teacher where they break colourful wind together happily every after (on a totally unrelated note, this is one of the Japanese pieces), a woman gets murdered by her own turd, a topless Nazi fox stripper tries to assassinate a war hero dog (this is NOT one of the animations), a woman fires vegetables out of her vagina at an entirely different topless Nazi who’s wearing a giant strap-on with a sword sticking out of the end (also Japanese. Just saying), men are forced to compete over who can masturbate to climax quickest whilst old men rape young boys and a one legged girl pleasures herself with her own prosthesis (help me I think my mind is going), a dead baby’s head makes a sci-fi oppressor’s mind explode, a pederast is stabbed in the eye with a decapitated deer head, naked men dressed as bombs launch themselves into the – I’m done. I don’t want to … I’m done.
Total artistic freedom was a laudable thing for the directors to have been given, and probably a big reason that the producers secured the talent they did, but without overarching editorial control the film becomes just a relentless dirge of weird and revolting. It wore down my human tolerance and left me desperate for sunlight. Perhaps the film would be better enjoyed in a cinema or with the right blood-hungry crowd, and if you’re game I offer you a slight recommendation based on the sheer madness of it all, but watching it alone pushed me beyond disgust, through tedium and into exhaustion. Send help.
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