Studio: Magnet Releasing
Director: Angela Bettis, Nacho Vigalondo, Ti West, Ben Wheatley, Adam Wingard, Various
Writer: Kaare Andrews, Simon Barrett, Various
Producer: Ant Timpson, Tim League
26 short films by different directors chronicle a manner of death based on a word for each letter of the English alphabet.
For an anthology collecting 26 short films made by different directors from all over the globe, a greater disparity in quality might be expected from one piece to the next. As an extremely pleasant surprise, it seems that no one wanted to risk being the noticeable weak link in the chain of talent involved and so almost everyone brought his/her A-game to the project.
With no more in hand than $5,000 and a letter of the alphabet, each creator was granted free reign to depict a manner of death based upon whatever word was chosen. The final assortment is a consistently unpredictable and thoroughly creative effort. No one chose an obvious path in constructing any short. V is not for Vampire. W is not for Werewolf. And Z is definitely not for Zombie. Assuming that each director went off and did his/her own thing with limited to no knowledge of what everyone else was doing, there is also a noticeable lack of overlap. Two pieces do employ a first-person perspective and another two opt for a fourth wall approach to their narratives. Otherwise, each segment stands apart from the other 25 as a unique entity. Well, almost. Presumably coincidentally, three of the deaths occur either on, in, or near a toilet. Of all the ways horror film directors might devise a death, toilet apparently ranks very high.
Assigning a score to this movie is largely pointless (although I do it anyway). With 26 different shorts to rate and review, each with its own style and story, no two people are going to find the same value in the total package. One could order the films from most to least favorite and compare notes with over 100 different people (maybe 1,000) before finding someone with an identical list. That is one of several appealing aspects of “The ABCs of Death.” It makes a great talking point among genre fans that will no doubt have drastically disparate opinions across the board. For the record, my list is below. Truth be told, aside from the top and bottom spots, the rest are fairly interchangeable plus/minus several positions.
With one exception, this review refers to individual films by letter rather than by title. Several segments are most effective when the word remains unknown. And in a few cases, the title reveal, which always comes at the end of the short, serves as the punchline to the joke, or the “aha” moment to clarify what was just witnessed. More fun can be had on the first viewing by trying to guess the word being depicted. Those who care little about spoilers can click the button below for a complete list of titles and directors.
The quantity of impressive pieces easily eclipses the few mediocre works. Even the segments that register as underwhelming are all captivating or at least visually arresting. Certainly none of them can be labeled boring. The usually reliable Ti West turns in perhaps the most threadbare effort with “M.” Yet as quick and as simple as it is, it still imprints a lasting impression and will end up as one of the more talked about entries, despite how it may stack up with its counterparts.
That is one of the interesting qualities of the feature. Each entry is memorable in some way. Even if a title is forgotten, memories can be jogged by saying, “the one with…” and scenes will be instantly recalled. There is plenty here to be tattooed on the mind’s eye.
There are not weak segments so much as there are segments that some will like less than others. For instance, the piece involving WWII-era furries in a cabaret did not appeal to me, but I have little doubt that more than one person out there will cite it as his/her personal favorite. The same will be true no matter which letter one may categorize as disappointing.
With a sequence order as arbitrary as the letter’s position in the alphabet, the pace works surprisingly well. Although I understand that at least three of the shorts were renamed so that they could be swapped, which explains why “B Is for Bigfoot” has nothing to do with Sasquatch. (Except its original title was “Y Is for Yeti,” which is just as confusing since that is also not the manner of death depicted.) The darkest themes are spaced far enough apart and are often bookended by more tolerable fare, keeping for a tone that never remains in either extreme of horror or comedy for too long.
Marcel Sarmiento’s “D” tells a visually stunning story entirely in slow motion and without the use of dialogue. The imagery is spectacular. Be forewarned that this will likely become your favorite segment. Kaare Andrews’ “V” no doubt doubles as a sales reel for feature film investors. Someone with the bankroll should grab that opportunity. The short shows its limited budget, but there are more interesting ideas crammed into six minutes than some sci-fi epics have across two hours. Bonus points to anyone who can guess the name of this segment before it appears onscreen.
“A” aptly sets the tone for most of what follows thanks to effective makeup FX and a fittingly ironic laugh at the end. It is not over-the-top comedy, which some of the pieces aim for, but it is a fair balance of how the remainder of the movie plays overall. The pure horror pieces resonate strongest. The shorts with a comedic bent are equally entertaining, although they are hamstrung by the disadvantage that they are all essentially one time only jokes. As funny as Adam Wingard’s “Q” is, it is unlikely to hold a lasting punch on repeated viewings.
Those averse to subtitles should note that several of the films are in languages other than English. Although more than a few of the stories feature either no dialogue or completely inconsequential dialogue, which further highlights the spectacular visual storytelling techniques. Simon Rumley’s “P,” which may shut some eyelids with its animal cruelty aspect, delivers a fully formed story replete with an incredibly convincing emotional range without uttering a single meaningful word.
Speaking of “P,” it is also worth forewarning that while the whole of the film will not be unusual to devoted horror aficionados, a few segments delve into subject matter that is often taboo and may be at odds with the giggles and traditional gore found in most of the shorts. In particular, “L, M, P, and Y” are intentionally disturbing. Two of those four involve pedophilia. “The ABCs of Death” is not for the easily offended or for the squeamish. Although why anyone ascribing to either of those groups would watch this movie, I have no idea.
Considering how loose the guidelines were in both creating and assembling this collection, the final film is serendipitously cohesive and engaging. As individual shorts, each film is a complete story told with both economy and an impressive artistic sensibility. As a complete film, “The ABCs of Death” works as a thrilling creative journey through the ideas of some of the best minds working in horror. Better than the list of 26 titles is the list of directors whose next works I now await with eager anticipation.
Review Score: 90