There are a lot of seriously depraved people working in the film industry these days. But before you take that as a cue to eagerly add THE ABCs OF DEATH to your “must see” pile, know that in this case, I don’t necessarily mean that as a compliment.
THE ABCs OF DEATH is an anthology film, but instead of being made up of three or four novela-length stories, it instead features 26 separate tales, each one based around a letter of the alphabet. Each segment is also helmed by different directors from all over the world, so we see some American pieces along with other pieces from Japan, the U.K and France, just to name a few. Each of these directors was given no more than $5,000 to complete their segment and virtual complete freedom to create whatever they wanted within the parameters of the subject matter. Oh yeah, and one more thing – each segment involves someone dying, usually in a gloriously violent fashion.
The film starts out wonderfully with Nacho Vigalondo (TIMECRIMES, EXTRATERRESTRIAL) delivering one of the film’s strongest segments. Things seriously start with a bang here and no matter what, you will not be prepared for what this segment offers. This keeps up through the next few segments actually, with the film delivering some really creative and absorbing short films. Then comes the segment by talented actress-turned-director Angela Bettis. Not bad, but certainly disappointing.
If only I realized how good I had it.
Though the title of each segment is not revealed until after each has completed, it doesn’t take long to realize that the “F” in Noburu Iguchi’s (DEAD SUSHI, THE MACHINE GIRL) segment stands for “fart.” It’s disgusting, which I guess is the point. Each of Iguchi’s films has at least one part guaranteed to turn people’s stomachs. I can’t look at tempura after seeing THE MACHINE GIRL and something tells me that as much as I admire his work, I might want to give ZOMBIE ASS: TOILET OF THE DEAD a skip. It’s also not funny and presents the film with the first clue that things are going to fall apart almost by design.
By getting so many different people together, with such wildly different styles from so many different places around the world and not offering any instruction in the tone their segments should take, they have virtually guaranteed that there will be no coherent flow to this mess. They have assured that what we’re going to get is uneven at best and at worst, a glorified highlight reel – the type directors show prospective producers as a portfolio to get on bigger and better projects.
In this film, we get segments that are straight-forward and those that are so abstract, you are never sure of what is going on. We have humorous and overwrought segments as well as bits that are understated and offer important social commentary. And while it would be nice to assume that everything flows nicely, the results get lop-sided pretty quickly.
Producers seem to have realized this, since it has been confirmed that there was a bit of cheating going on with the letters. Certain segments were retitled and shifted to different parts of the film in an attempt to make things flow better.
There are certain things you can expect in each segment. Since each segment averages less than five minutes, a lot has to be done quickly. Hence, many directors rely on slow reveals, bits that keep you guessing until the final segments. Likewise, having to purposely eschew a complex narrative, you instead get plenty of mood pieces. The ones that work slowly but surely towards their conclusion without relying on hasty characterization or cheap shock value are some of the best.
Several directors manage to create some imaginative works. In addition to Vigalondo’s segment, the other directors who do admirable jobs include: Adrián García Bogliano, Ernesto Díaz Espinoza (KILTRO, MIRAGEMAN), Marcel Sarmiento (DEADGIRL), Thomas Cappelen Malling (NORWEGIAN NINJA), Jorge Michel Grau (WE ARE WHAT WE ARE), Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (AMER), Srdjan Spasojevic (A SERBIAN FILM) and Kaare Andrews (ALTITUDE). This all seems like a lot to recommend it, but count that. That’s nine directors (and eight segments). Nine directors who create decent segments. Out of 27 total directors that took part in this project. That’s it. Just under one-third of the segments really works. And no matter what your game is, that’s a pretty lousy ratio.
Even the directors’ past records are no guarantee of success. For instance, I liked Spasojevic’s segment, despite thinking that A SERBIAN FILM was a ridiculous and overrated exercise in nihilism. On the other spectrum, I’m a big admirer of Ti West (HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, THE INKEEPERS) but his segment may be the shortest and most inconsequential of the lot.
It’s also harder to impress the viewer the longer the film wears on. 26 different segments is simply too much for this film. You see this uneven mix and bloody shorts and by the time it’s all done, you’ve sat through 130 minutes of death, offering only a few moments of thrills.
THE ABCs of DEATH is proof positive that filmmakers can be unbelievably trashy and unbearably pretentious at the same time. It’s a film that offers a little bit of killer but a whole lot of filler. ★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Not rated, but the equivalent of an NC-17 (yes, really) for constant images of death, violence, murder, brutality, disembowelings and dismemberments, full frontal male and female nudity, graphic sex, strong language and a lot of toilet humor and bodily functions.
– Running tmie: 2hrs 10mins.