The rule – I’m pretty sure it’s written down somewhere – is that anthology horror movies have either one good installment or one bad installment. The Zuni Fetish Doll segment from Trilogy of Terror? That’s the good one. The golfing buddy ghost episode from Dead of Night? That’s the bad one. But, like all laws, it’s important to revisit them from time to time to see if they still hold water. The anthology horror rule was written at a point when these movies only included a handful of stories per film. The ABCs of Death boasts 26 horror shorts from 28 different directors (some of whom worked in pairs).
There’s no real precedent for that, unless you count Lumière & Co., which you probably should. That 1995 film challenged filmmakers ranging from David Lynch to Spike Lee to Liv Ullman to each make a short film using the Lumière Bros.’ original Cinematographe, the first motion picture camera. They were given three rules: 1) No film could be longer than 52 seconds, 2) No film could use synchronized sound, and 3) No film could be made in more than three takes. Lumière & Co. wasn’t so much a motion picture as it was a demonstration of how wildly different filmmakers would find a way to express themselves when given the same artistic constrictions.
The ABCs of Death is a similar compilation. The only common thread between these 26 films is that each director was instructed to ruminate on death, in whatever fashion they liked, provided it tied into a word beginning with a specific letter of the alphabet. The letter “A,” for example, is for “Apocalypse,” and Timecrimes director Nacho Vigalondo took quite a bit of pleasure in telling an apocalyptic tale on a tiny budget, in a single location, and from a highly unusual perspective.
They can’t all be winners however, and the films in The ABCs of Death vary wildly in content and quality. Based on a simple “Good/Bad” ratio, ignoring (momentarily) any grey areas in between, I’d say about 61% of them are “good” movies, throwing that old anthology horror rule out the window. That's pretty good for an anthology horror movie, but merely above average as a complete movie experience. Also bear in mind that my taste in horror movies is very broad. I actually liked Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Z is for Zetsumetsu, the final short in the film, which I suspect is going to leave half the audience with itchy heads, and the other half in a state of fury over its bizarre, perverse and “way too soon” 9/11 imagery.
The good shorts, if you’re in agreement about which ones are “good,” are spread out over the film, many coming at exactly the right time. Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s short, Q is for Quack, about these two hapless directors struggling to figure out how to make a movie based on the black sheep of the alphabet, is a welcome lighthearted diversion by the time it rolls around, after Simon Rumley’s depressing prostitution saga P is for Pressure, and the gorgeous but impenetrable O is for Orgasm, by Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet. Some shorts are “good” because they are funny, like Banjong Pisanthanakun’s N is for Nuptials. Others, like D is for Dogfight, are good because they are dramatically satisfying. Still others are good because they are genuinely disturbing, albeit for a reason, like Xavier Gens’ harrowing body horror entry, X is for XXL.
The bad shorts are also bad for different reasons. Ti West’s short, based on the letter “M” (and telling you what “M” is for counts as a spoiler), is a thin joke with a grotesque, unfunny and not terribly illuminating punchline. Adrián García Bogliano’s B is for Bigfoot just isn’t as scary as it wants to be. Noburu Iguchi’s F is for Fart goes in bizarrely melodramatic directions with no apparent point, other than overselling its title for shock value. And L is for Libido, by Timo Tjahjanto may be borderline unwatchable depending upon your own personal limits of “good taste.” I’m a pretty open-minded guy, and I would never suggest censoring it, but man… I did not want to see what L is for Libido had to offer. Yikes.
Watching The ABCs of Death is sort of a gauntlet experience. It’s like you walked into the last day of a graduate film school production class, only to find out during the screenings that each of the students is messed up in the head. It’s kind of fascinating to see some of the recurring motifs that pop in and out of The ABCs of Death, in story structure (since many of them play out like a joke, complete with a terrible punchline) as well as the actual content. T is for Toilet, obviously, and Lee Hardcastle’s stop-motion animated short is both memorable, funny and sad, but toilets keep popping up throughout the picture in various different ways. Perhaps we’re a toilet-centric culture now, and The ABCs of Death is the first film to put a fine point on it. Or maybe juxtaposing all these different directorial visions in a non-linear sequence just caused me to seek out patterns where there were none to be found. Either way: fascinating.
But fascination, particularly morbid fascination, is really the only reason to see The ABCs of Death. You need to be willing to sit back and watch a wide variety of directors, some of whom may be on a completely different wavelength from your own personal interests and boundaries, ply their imagination within a specific set of arbitrary creative parameters. Due to budgetary limitations there’s a lot of talking in rooms, but that just makes installments like Kaare Andrews’ V is for Vagitus more refreshing for going balls out with CGI, big ideas and broadly painted storylines. There’s something for everyone in The ABCs of Death. The only question is whether you’ll actually want to see any of the parts made for someone else, particularly if they have a diseased mind. Because some of these bad boys were clearly made for a disturbed demographic.
William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.