Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Cinema File #119: "The ABCs Of Death" Review

This one might be a little hard to review, as the structure of today's subject would seem to defy a cohesive critique. The ABCs Of Death, if you've never heard of it, is not a single movie, but rather an anthology of 26 short films, each concerning the theme of death combined with something else starting with a specific letter. For example, the first short is called A Is For Apocalypse, and features a woman trying to accomplish her goal of killing her husband before the imminent end of the world. Each film follows this same title construction, but beyond that they are all vastly different, ranging from horrific to surreal to comic. They are each produced by a different team, from many different parts of the world, allowing for many disparate sensibilities. Given the off kilter set up, I'm almost sort of amazed at just how well the whole thing is pulled off, and how so few of the individual elements failed to entertain.

The thing about this idea is that it seems to paint a compiler into a corner. You give an assignment to a bunch of different directors, giving them a letter and telling them to make any short film they want as long as its about death, and once completed, there's no way to arrange them if their alphabetical order isn't conducive to the flow you want for your movie. Obviously with 26 shorts, they're not all going to be winners, but with something like this, if the first one doesn't grab you, chances are it sets a sour tone for the whole thing, and if the last one isn't great, your movie just petered out, and in this case, yo can't rearrange them to ensure consistency. Its true that they aren't all great, but surprisingly just based on the law of averages, none of them outright fail, as there was always at least something to enjoy about every one, even if individually some didn't come together in a satisfying way by the end.

When I said they are all different, that's technically not completely true, as the one other thing they all seem to share is a dark, anarchic tone that I suppose lends itself to the whole enterprise. Give a filmmaker this assignment, especially a young one as most of these appear to be, and chances are you're probably not going to get any serious period costume dramas that just happen to have someone croak at the end. Pretty much every short has some sort of humorous or outlandish element, save the few more traditional horror ones, and they're all heavy on style and imagination. Plus, the nature of the link between the films led me to have my own fun just trying to guess what each letter stood for, the titles only appearing after each short and often referring to something oblique or esoteric in relation to the individual segment.

Though its very hard to choose, for what its worth, my favorites are as follows: X is for XXL, the gruesomely tragic story of an overweight woman dealing with her body shame, Q is for Quack, a meta tale of filmmakers trying to make a film with the letter Q, T is for Toilet, a claymation cautionary tale of why you should take your child's fears seriously, V is for Vagitus, the lone straight science fiction short in the bunch, and Y is for Youngbuck, an 80's tinged story of revenge against a pedophile school janitor. All that being noted, the Japanese shorts peppering the movie deserve special mention. F is for Fart is an insane romp about the flatulent cruelty of God, and the final short, Z is for Zetsumetsu simply must be seen to be believed. I don't want to spoil it, but I also don't think I'd be able to. All I'll say is that Japanese Dr. Strangelove's sexy Nazi lady sidekick has the biggest penis sword I've ever seen.

When I heard the premise for this collection and saw the poster, I expected a series of mostly horror movies with a few horror comedies thrown in. In fact, the series isn't consistently scary, or consistently funny, or consistently anything except insane and entertaining. After VHS which shares many of the same creative contributors, this is the second anthology movie I've seen recently that I've loved, despite it consisting of a type of thing I don't normally enjoy (found footage movies and shorts respectively). A sequel to VHS is already coming soon, and I certainly hope The ABCs of Death becomes a franchise as well, as I can easily see this format continuing indefinitely, giving creative low budget production teams a platform to craft some truly original work for years to come. Definitely check it out when you can.

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