Anthology films can be tough to review, since they often constitute a mixed bag in the best of times. Unless all of the entries are uniformly good (or bad), you have to mine the highlights with care and sit through some pretty forgettable fare in the meantime. Furthermore, when multiple filmmakers get involved, they often struggle to find a balanced tone, leaving the audience with a mishmash of inconsistent puzzle pieces. The best examples (say, George A. Romero’s Creepshow) use tone and atmosphere as a common thread, allowing the different stories to explore the boundaries of their intended task. The worst succumb to lazy repetition, forcing the audience to work far too hard to find the highlights.
The ABCs of Death sinks even further than that because there’s no reward: just a painful slog through a would-be horror show that embraces the most reprehensible tendencies of shock cinema. It links 26 short films together, each one based on a letter of the alphabet and each one exploring some aspect of death. It’s a great premise, made all the more intriguing by the wide variety of formats and approaches involved. The directors deliver their topics as thrillers, as comedies, as social message films, as stop-motion and traditional animation, and even as porn. The possibilities are delicious. The reality is absolutely vile.
It does itself an even greater disservice by starting so strong. The “A” entry comes courtesy of Spanish maestro Nacho Vigalondo, whose Timecrimes remains one of the most fascinating science fiction movies of recent years and who readily grasps the possibilities here. His piece is shocking yet elegant, with a delicious twist and a keen understanding of how to deploy the violence without devolving into exploitation.
Once it passes, however, the film quickly goes downhill. The remaining directors lack his sense of grace, and mistake crude shock tactics for real horror. Shorts involving lethal fecal matter, deadly masturbation contests and fart fetishists (no joke) work overtime to blow our minds without thinking the concepts through. Many of them cling to their alphabetical title as a life preserver, setting up the “X is for Y” kicker rather than concentrating on the stories themselves. (The “W” entry, in particular, needs to ponder this upon the Tree of Woe).
The steady array of blood, shit and jism often aims for Cronenbergian body revulsion, but can’t find the common anxieties required to make us squirm. When that fails, the pieces turn to dark humor, but without the requisite wit to make us really hate ourselves for laughing at it. More than a few pieces feel like pretentious student films dusted off after graduation, the sort of thing that earns a grudging “B-” just so the professor can get on with his life. Even the constant shift to a new piece – renewing our hope that maybe the next one will get better – grows boring after a time, until we’re left wondering when it will all end rather than what might be coming next.
The disappointment becomes particularly acute considering the scope of it all. The filmmakers come from all over the world, and most of them are extremely talented. It’s beyond depressing to watch the likes of Ti West struggle to convey his wafer-thin concept, or Adam Wingert lowering himself to self-referential jokes that felt old twenty years ago. Wingert’s case also riffs on the short that precedes it… a horrid bit of would-be social commentary that involves a prostitute crushing a kitten’s skull with high heels. That kind of button-pushing is infuriating to begin with, but the subsequent attempt to play it off for laughs moves it into truly reprehensible territory. (Ben Wheatley recovers with a decent bit of shaky-cam ghoulishness for “U,” but that’s a long way to go for a comparatively brief reward.)
Luckily for us, the Internet makes a perfect place for watching the best shorts and ignoring the remainder. Ten minutes on YouTube will give you everything worth watching here. The rest belongs in the garbage, using indie credentials to deliver juvenile gore devoid of point or purpose. Horror movies descend to such depths more often than they should, but rarely after displaying so much promise and potential. I’ll take your average Friday the 13th sequel over this collection of toxic brain drippings every time. At least those films don’t write checks that their ass can’t cash.