Words can not describe the experience I had watching The ABCs of Death, a series of 26 shorts named after each one of the letters of the alphabet and the many ways we could all die. I came into it expecting just a lot of typical 5-9 minute horror shorts and came out of the experience flabbergasted at the things I was forced to witness. And no, I do not mean this in a positive way. There are some good–even great–shorts in The ABCs of Death, and yet they’re all overshadowed by some of the most awful, idiotic, infantile material I’ve ever seen in any film experience in my lifetime as a cinephile.
It would be unfair to give this anthology film a grade when it’s this astoundingly inconsistent. So to (hopefully) balance it all out, here are individual mini-reviews for each of the shorts, acting also as kind of a journal of my thoughts and feelings sifting through all 26 in one sitting. This review may run longer than you’d want, and you might start to groan as I continue to wheel on about the problems and strengths of this film, but at least you’ll feel exactly how I felt as I trudged through the experience of watching all 26 of these shorts all the way through.
A is for Apocalypse (Dir. Nacho Vigalando)
After a lengthy title sequence, the anthology kicks off on a very strong start with A is for Apocalypse. From the Spanish director of Timecrimes and Extraterrestrial, the short is less than five minutes long and executes everything it sets out to do near-perfectly. It sets up the scene, gets gory very quickly, yet manages to be a little emotional and contemplative by the end. Oh wow, I thought. If this is the kind of quality we’re starting with, I can’t wait to see what else is in store! (Grade: B+)
B is for Bigfoot (Dir. Adrian Garcia Bogliano)
B is for Bigfoot is much more lightweight than A, but it does a good job of setting the stage and characters and gets to its punchline quickly. That being said, it’s also incredibly predictable. I can’t really explain how (for risk of spoilers), but it’s the kind of story that can really only end one way and it doesn’t really do much to add some originality or surprises to the mix. But hey, at the very least, it’s executed well-enough. My hopes remain high for what’s in store. (Grade: B-)
C is for Cycle (Dir. Ernesto Diaz Espinoza)
Now this is what I’m talking about! C is for Cycle makes for a great third short because it represents the kind of variety and originality one could have with this anthology premise. It doesn’t make much sense, but as a brief piece of sci-fi, it’s new and interesting. So far, so good. (Grade: B+)
D is for Dogfight (Dir. Marcel Sarmiento)
Wow. D is for Dogfight doesn’t really have much in the way of a story or even a premise. It’s really just a stylized fight between a man and a rabid fighting dog. But Jesus Christ is it filmed beautifully. Shot with lots of slow-mo and gorgeously framed angles that accentuate the brutality as much as humanly possible, it’s simply just a well-done exercise of filmmaking prowess. (Grade: B+)
E is for Exterminate (Dir. Angela Bettis)
Directed by actress Angela Bettis, an actress who you may remember as the title character of May and the role of Janet from Girl, Interrupted, E is for Exterminate capitalizes on everyone’s collective fear of spiders with lots of unnerving shots from a spider’s point of view as it “infects” a lowly schlub. It starts and proceeds in a nasty fashion because…well, you can’t help but be unnerved by anything involving spiders, which ranks among the worst of God’s creations next to centipedes and Carrot Top, and the short milks that tension for all its worth. Sadly, it ends on a very unsatisfying note due to some pretty low-rent CG, but considering the low-budget nature of all of these shorts, I forgave it. (Grade: C+)
F is for Fart (Dir. Noboru Iguchi)
You read that correctly, folks. This is the first of what I like to call the “troll” shorts of this anthology, which are simply made to be as disgusting, offensive, and even downright stupid as humanly possible. To give you an idea of this kind of short, a Japanese schoolgirl asks her (female) teacher to fart on her, and the fart ends up consuming the schoolgirl and transports her into the teacher’s butthole. Once inside, the teacher and student kiss and embrace as microscopic versions of themselves inside the teacher’s gas pocket.
If that doesn’t sound like the dumbest possible idea for a short, then you may need help. It was astonishing to watch this short with my own two eyes. This is a thing that exists, I kept thinking to myself. Someone literally made a short film in which a Japanese schoolgirl and her teacher embrace with the power of farts inside one of their buttholes. In a way, I almost had to applaud the audacity of making this kind of short. It was stupid beyond belief, but I gave it a pass, if only because I knew I’d never see something like it again.
That being said, my exact thoughts upon the finale of that short were something along the lines of, “I sure hope there aren’t a lot of shorts like that, because I don’t know how much more of that kind of stupidity I could take.” If only I could go back in time and warn myself of what was to come… (Grade: C)
G is for Gravity (Dir. Andrew Traucki)
So G is for Gravity starts and my first thought is that it appears to be found-footage. Okay, I thought to myself. I guess I should’ve expected this considering the enduring popularity of that little sub-genre of horror films, but whatever. It looks like it’s being shot with a helmet cam of some sort as a young man is going to the beach for a surf. Then the camera stays underwater for a long period of time, implying that he’s perhaps drowning, then floats away from the lone surf-board. That was it. That was the whole short.
I hate to jump to baseless assumptions, but this was the kind of anthology short that felt as if the director was trying really hard to come up with a good short film idea, couldn’t think of something, saw that the deadline was approaching, and haphazardly put together something that only vaguely resembled a short with the cheapest equipment he could find. At the very least it was short enough that it immediately escaped my memory by the time the next batshit crazy short came about. (Grade: D)
H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion (Dir. Thomas Malling)
So here’s my thought-process watching H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion: Okay, so we’re in a Sin City-esque looking place and everything looks stylized and retro. Okay, so far it’s interesting enough. I wonder if… oh… apparently the cast of this short is populated with furries, with the main character being a WWII fighter pilot that’s also an anthropomorphic dog. Uh…I’m not quite sure how I feel about that, but as long as these characters aren’t being sexualized, I think I can survive this–whoops, spoke to soon. The pilot has entered a strip-club and is ogling a fox-lady. It was probably poor judgement of me to see this anthology so close to midnight because I’ll clearly be having the weirdest of dreams. At the very least it can’t get weirder than–never mind, the fox-stripper is also a Nazi, apparently.
The short then proceeds through live-action cartoon slapstick but with a gory, realistic aesthetic so displeasing to the eye it brings back memories of the garish, ugly Son of the Mask. That coupled with the fact that it’s exceedingly loud and chaotic made the experience of watching this short oddly unpleasant. I really can’t say anything more than that. (Grade: D-)
I is for Ingrown (Dir. Jorge Michel Grau)
After the one-two-three punch of shorts F, G, and H, we’re back to more traditional territory with I is for Ingrown. There’s not much to it, but the imagery is bloody, and deeply unsettling, which is all you could really ask for, and it felt like such a relief to have a short like this after the last three. (Grade: B-)
J is for Jidai-Geki (Samurai Movie) (Dir. Yûdai Yamaguchi)
It took a while for me to get the “joke” of this particular short, and I’m assuming that’s because it requires a sort of cultural context, but I at least understood what it was going for by the end. The short is innocent and gory enough, but fails to leave an impact. It’s at this point that I’m starting to worry about the anthology’s abilities to sustain its zaniness. (Grade: C)
K is for Klutz (Dir. Anders Morgenthaler)
Well, at the very least The ABCs of Death isn’t running out of surprises too soon. K is for Klutz is the first animated short in the bunch and it follows a woman as she battles a piece of poop that she can’t seem to be able to flush. It’s nicely animated, nothing too flashy but it fits the tone, and the aesthetic fits the slapstick much more than the live-action H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion did.
Sadly, it’s at this point that I’m sensing a major problem. Not with the movie, mind you, but with myself: I came into this anthology expecting the whole experience to be horror-themed, but it seems that the only criteria for these shorts is that they have to involve death in some way. Not ideal, but I was willing to shift my expectations at this point, and this short was charming enough on its own, even if it didn’t gel with the rest of the shorts preceding it. (Grade: C+)
L is for Libido (Dir. Timo Tjahjanto)
Now this is how you’re supposed to do it. L is for Libido has all the disgusting, nearly offensive habits of shorts F and H, but it does it in a way that’s actually very fun and not totally unpleasant to watch. I dare not say what happens in it for fear of ruining the strange surprises in store, but let’s just say that it utilizes a deranged premise I’ve never seen before in a movie and capitalizes on it with hilariously strange, gory results. It’s disgusting, to be sure, but somehow director Timo Tjahjanto manages to nail the tone and the disgusting imagery just right. (Grade: B+)
M is for [SPOILER] (Dir. Ti West)
Ti West’s short is a big, disturbing gut-punch and what works so well about it is the fade-in to its title and meaning at the end, so I’ll just leave it at that, unspoiled. (Grade: B)
N is for Nuptials (Dir. Banjong Pisanthanakun)
This is hands-down one of the absolute worst shorts in the entire anthology. It may not be as unpleasant as H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion, but it’s certainly cheaper and cornier. You know that bad, cheesy joke that your weird uncle would tell your family members at a Thanksgiving party that would bring the house down despite its hokeyness? N is for Nuptials represents all the worst qualities of such a joke, as it plods its less-than-5-minute running time with a lame set-up and a bad punchline, with the only “death” of this segment being a shot of a lot of tomato juice splattering the screen. Really. (Grade: F)
O is for Orgasm (Dir. Bruno Forzani & Héléne Cattet)
After that last dud of a short, I’m starting to tire and wonder when we’ll get to the next good short already, and I’m only about halfway through. O is for Orgasm doesn’t alleviate these feelings either. It’s less of a narrative short and more of a perfume commercial, with lots of close-ups of women moaning, blowing bubbles, and other sensual things with just a small tinge of unpleasantness lurking in the back. It’s slickly filmed and stylish and yadda yadda yadda, but I’m finding it hard to appreciate because the anthology’s length is already getting to me. (Grade: C)
I’m at over ten shorts at this point. Five-minutes or not, it feels exhausting, especially considering the disturbing material this whole anthology is depicting. And though there have been plenty of strong ones to be sure, the bad ones are so bad they manage to overshadow the good. At this point, I’m worrying that the rest of the anthology may fall under that trap.
P is for Pressure (Dir. Simon Rumley)
I’ll admit that I didn’t understand anything that was going on in this short. It attempts to tell a full narrative about a woman attempting to care for three children while prostituting herself all in the span of–what else–around 5-minutes, and it attempts it without any dialogue, opting instead for visual storytelling and quick-cutting reminiscent of the montages found in Darren Aronofsky’s early work. But visual storytelling needs to be shown with very clear shots with enough time to process the meaning of what’s on screen (Great example: The Red Balloon), and the erratic pace of the short contradicts that to the point of incomprehensibility. A shame considering I’m quite a fan of Simon Rumley’s The Living and the Dead. (Grade: C-)
Q is for Quack (Dir. Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett)
And here we have: The meta one. Q is for Quack follows writers/directors Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett playing themselves, making jokes about Nacho Vigalando, and complaining about how they got the hardest letter, Q, to make a movie out of for the anthology. It’s entertaining and fun and it leads to the most typical of punchlines, but it offers few surprises, which is something I need when I’m already feeling this burnt out from watching all these shorts. (Grade: B)
R is for Removed (Dir. Srdjan Spasojevic)
Whoa, okay, now this is fairly interesting. R is for Removed is the first true “surrealist” short in the bunch, with abstract imagery and an eerie, discordant tone. Of course, like a lot of the shorts in this anthology, the payoff leaves a lot to be desired considering the build-up. This is a trend I’m starting to notice all throughout this anthology: Because these shorts all have to be so…well, short, they usually aren’t given enough time to either develop the build-up or develop the payoff, which is a shame considering all the original ideas on display in many of these shorts. Well, at the very least R is for Removed offered some surprises and strange imagery, which was more than a lot of the other shorts were able to capture. (Grade: B)
S is for Speed (Dir. Jake West)
The second this short started, I was worried. It begins with two ludicrously, erotically fashioned women in a Mad Max style desert, one dragging the other, firing rounds at a mysterious hooded figure, and swearing enough times to make even a sailor cringe as she proceeds into her Road Warrior transportation machine. Oh look, I thought. It’s another one of these overtly silly, ridiculous shorts that are seriously testing my patience.
But just as I was about to dismiss this short as another misfire, it threw a curveball. A curveball that I honestly couldn’t give away even if I tried. It felt almost as if writer/director Jake West was parodying all the more ridiculous shorts in this anthology (Like F and H) and exposing them for the drug-addled indulgences that they are. That’s…highly unlikely, of course, but that twist was enough to really make me come around to the short. Like Ti West’s M, the ending feels like a very effective punch to the gut of expectation that felt very refreshing. Could this anthology be going back on the right track? (Grade: B+)
T is for Toilet (Dir. Lee Hardcastle)
Well that didn’t take long. T is for Toilet was a short that I desperately wanted to like: It utilized stop-motion animation, a medium that I go ga-ga for anytime I see it, and was filled with incredibly inventive gore. The only problem: It was so damn mean-spirited. Showing a boy who’s afraid of getting potty-trained, all of his greatest fears become realized when the toilet becomes a blood-thirsty monster that murders his parents in the most grotesque of ways right in front of the poor kid’s eyes. And while I wanted to appreciate the incredible animation and creative means of dismemberment, it was honestly kind of hard to watch the cute little boy witness his own parents’ gruesome murder, animated or otherwise.
I started to question myself as this short was playing in front of me: Have I just become an old codger trapped in a young man’s body who’s become easily offended by this kind of senseless violence? Was my discomfort just brought about because of my exhaustion with sitting through this whole anthology? Or perhaps the most worrying: Did the latter end up bringing out the former? Alas, such questions can’t be pondered on when the next short is already underway. (Grade: C-)
U is for Unearthed (Dir. Ben Wheatley)
Ben Wheatley’s U is for Unearthed is shown in a first-person point-of-view, but feels more like a mediocre found-footage film. Echoing the finale of Wheatley’s own Kill List, we see everything from the perspective of a mysterious monster (Most likely a vampire) being pursued by an angry mob in the forest. Again, this short is decent enough, but shown this late in the anthology, it loses some of its luster.
This is the kind of short that should be shown at the start to prepare viewers for the more zany shorts. I get that they all have to be shown in the order of the alphabet, but that doesn’t make it any less problematic. What could’ve been a fairly effective short on its own feels like a drudge when followed up by the twenty other shorts before it. At this point, the anthology really needs to step up their game if they want to maintain my interest… (Grade: C+)
V is for Vagitus (Dir. Kaare Andrews)
And again, I speak too soon. V is for Vagitus is a dystopic sci-fi action fest that’s got explosions, gun-battles, and surprisingly impressive CG work. This was the adrenaline rush I needed to keep going. It manages to set-up an interesting sci-fi setting (It feels like Children of Men meets Robocop with hints of Looper thrown in), has a few action beats that bring shame to some of the blockbusters found in cinemas right now, and also has the pre-requisite gore as well. The fact that it also has an interesting plot felt refreshing as well! It was shocking to find that this low-budget short accomplished so much visually and narratively. Honestly, the movie could’ve ended here and I would’ve been more than satisfied enough to forget the rest of the misfires that I had to sit through. (Grade: A)
Sadly, however, it kept going…
W is for WTF (Dir. Jon Schnepp)
W is for WTF was the final nail in the coffin. A short so aggressively awful that it made me regret seeing the whole anthology, even in spite of the bright spots. It’s a messy collage of random crap thrown at the screen, all of it loud, ugly, obnoxious, vulgar, cheap-looking, and disorienting. It was the cinematic equivalent of watching an infant soil itself then make snow-angels with its own fecal matter.
It was at this moment that the questions finally came: What am I doing with my life? Why do I continue to watch this? What sick soul made this asinine turd and thought it was in any way fun? For that brief moment, I hated the whole anthology for containing this short. I hated the producer for allowing this short into the anthology. I hated my cable provider for allowing this anthology to be in their On Demand slot. I hated my television for not having the decency to turn itself off as this hideous short was playing in front of me.
And the worst part about it was that deep down inside, I knew that all of my complaints were, in a way, useless. This was the ultimate troll-job: a short that’s intentionally loud, ugly, obnoxious, vulgar, cheap-looking, and disorienting, all in the name of saying “Heh, WTF, am I right?” I couldn’t combat it the same way I couldn’t combat a 7-year-old who would just repeat everything I’d say but in a mocking tone of voice.
All I could do was sit there in silence and admit defeat that I paid money to watch this. And considering this was the 23rd short, I realized that I had to keep going, for I have made it this far. Diabolically placed in the line-up, this short was. I may have admitted defeat, but I couldn’t outright give up either. I decided to tough it out; to die honorably in this battle of endurance and frustration. (Grade: F)
X is for XXL (Dir. Xavier Gens)
This was actually a rather great short that, despite its best efforts, still wasn’t able to cleanse me of the scars I acquired from W is for WTF. X is for XXL is an extreme critique on the corporate stigma of good looks that the media continually pushes. It depicts a fat girl constantly teased by a consumer-society that believes she isn’t pretty enough to walk amongst them. It gets to the point that she becomes eager to trim off her fat…in more ways than you can imagine.
Sadly, I was at the lowest levels of patience by the time this admittedly effective short film played. Because of the 23 other shorts I had to witness before it. Because of the awfulness of the last short. Because of all the blood, vomit, ejaculate, and poop I had to witness beforehand. And as a result, I was actually disgusted with the end of this short. In a good way, I guess, for it’s incredibly disturbing and effective in that regard, but I don’t think I’d have been that queasy had I not witnessed all the aforementioned bodily fluids I had to sit through prior. Oh well, only two shorts left and it’s finally over… (Grade: B)
Y is for Youngbuck (Dir. Jason Eisener)
Y is for Youngbuck is a perfectly decent little short with a twisted story and some disturbing imagery, but it hardly phased me. After the awfulness of W and the disgusting-ness of X, I felt like I was in a kind of hallucinatory trance, where the images from short #25 just kind of faded in and out, back and forth. I was waiting for the damn thing to be over already, asking myself why they made it like this. 26 shorts is much too much, even if they’re all at or below 5 minutes. In fact, that brief run time makes it ideal for, say, a web series of some sort. The viewer could watch the shorts at their own pace and order, rather than have to be forced to sit through every single one of them back to back to back. (Grade: B-/C+)
But alas, I’m essentially imagining a different movie altogether rather than critiquing what’s in front of me. Now The ABCs of Death is almost over with just one more short to go. Hopefully this final short isn’t the equivalent of getting kicked in the face whilst knocked-out in the ring.
Z is for Zetsumetsu (Dir. Yoshihiro Nishimura)
And now my face is throbbing with pain.
It felt almost unfair for me to watch Z is for Zetsumetsu under the viewing conditions I was in. It’s directed by the man behind Tokyo Gore Police–which I haven’t seen but I have a feeling I’d appreciate considering my unabashed love for films like Dead Alive before it–and there’s some truly bizarre imagery on screen that a small part of me in the back of my head greatly appreciated for its perverted invention.
But I had enough of it. I had become so god damn tired of all the blood, the guts, the ejaculate, the vomit, and the poop I had to trudge through to get to the credits that when Z is for Zetsumetsu introduced a Japanese woman with what looked like a gigantic 5-foot penis with a sword coming out of the tip, what should’ve been a fun, ridiculous cap to a strange anthology was instead a giant neon-sign telling me “You wasted your time and money on this and you will never get any of it back” as the memories of all the shorts I liked were effectively erased for a brief but potent period of time. (Grade: D)
And then finally, the credits rolled. Instead of feeling relieved it was over, I just felt angrier. Not because I felt like I wasted my time, which I did. Not because I felt like I wasted my money, which I also did. And not because I hated a lot of what I saw, which was true. What made me most mad was that there were some truly good, even great shorts in this anthology, and they were all eclipsed by the sheer awfulness of the bad ones. And even then, some of the bad ones had their own kind of irreverent glee for perversion.
Does this anthology deserve an F because of all the awful shorts I had to sit through? Does it deserve a B for for all the good ones? Would a C for effort suffice? Even an A for at the very least never boring me and always showing me something I’d never seen before, even when it was being atrocious? I could never know. All I know is that The ABCs of Death was a downright surreal love/hate experience I’ll remember forever, for better or worse.