Monday, February 11, 2013
The premise is very simple: 26 different filmmakers each received a letter of the alphabet and $5,000 to film whatever they wanted. The only rule is that they choose a word, and that that word be used to illustrate some way that a person can be killed. I could get "K" and choose "knife," then spend five or six minutes building up to some elaborate and graphic stabbing.
None of the choices in the movie are quite so pedestrian. Maybe some of them should have been.
Things start off well enough -- so well, in fact, that the first segment, by Nacho Vigalando, is the best in the entire movie (a problem also suffered by last year's indie-horror anthology, V/H/S). The fact that it's all downhill after that -- and that there are TWENTY-FIVE more short films -- does not bode well for the quality of the movie. But it offers everything we might want from a horror short: it tells a little story, it showcases some shocking violence and it has a neat twist. I won't suggest that every entry in The ABCs of Death should resemble "A" -- the structure would grow repetitive very quickly -- but the fact that so few of the contributors seem to understand what works the way that Vigalando does came as a bit of a shock.
What's worse is that the sameness settles in anyway, just not in the context of clever and interesting short films. It's unavoidable, really, because it's built into the structure of the movie: every segment is just building up to a violent demise. The whole thing amounts to a hipper, more modern Faces of Death. There can be little drama when we already know how every single segment is going to end. I won't even give away what the letters stand for, because often times it serves as the punchline to a given sequence.
Hausu with his entry for "F" (spoilers -- "F" is for "fart"), but appears to understand only the weirdness, not the beauty. Also, I like Ti West a lot, but his entry in this movie really needs to fuck off.
Some filmmakers were smart enough to make their entries feel like pieces of a much larger story -- there is a movie that exists outside of the five minutes we spend in that world. Timo Tjahjanto's "L" lands us in the middle of some demented contest; how it began or what its goals are are never explained. Yes, it's repellent and ultimately pretty stupid, but at least demonstrates some ingenuity. Better is comic book artist Karre Andrews' "V," a sci-fi piece that exists inside of a much, much bigger universe with a scope and scale way beyond the $5,000 budget.
The best entries are the ones that change things up enough to stand out. Lee Hardcastle's "T" segment (which is only in the movie because he won a contest) is done entirely in stop-motion animation. "U," directed by Ben Wheatley (who made Kill List), is all told as one extended POV shot; while the story isn't any great shakes, it's technically impressive. The "X" segment is one of the strongest, and features one of the most awful and disturbing images I've ever seen in a horror movie. No surprise that it's directed by Xavier Gens, director of Frontier(s) and part of the French extremist horror movement.
I tend to like horror anthologies because of their economy and because they offer a lot of different things inside of one, hopefully complete package. There are very few good ones, however, and The ABCs of Death does little to change that. It had the potential to be even more interesting than most, seeing as it involves a whopping 26 filmmakers and a number of languages and cultures that inform the segments. It's disappointing that most of the directors just used the opportunity to be as juvenile as possible, but I guess it's a pretty juvenile idea for a movie. Maybe it's exactly what it should be. In that case, I guess it's just my fault for not liking it.
So the movie is not very good. But so few horror movies are this willing to be so gross and irresponsible -- to revel in the basest elements of the genre -- that I almost think it's worth seeing as a curiosity. It's a gimmick movie that rarely transcends its gimmick, but, as a horror movie fan, there are things in it to be talked about. In most cases, that boils down to "Well, that was stupid." But every once in a while, a Japanese woman will shoot vegetables out of her vagina, and you'll think "I've never seen that in a movie before."
The ABCs of Death is currently available via VOD and will receive a limited theatrical release through Drafthouse Films beginning March 8th.