Given the subject matter of The ABCs of Death (2012), the new compilation horror movie from producers Ant Timpson and Tim League, and directors including Srdjan Spasojevic (A Serbian Film ) and Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police ), it was inevitable that it would, to a greater or lesser degree, be controversial. That the result encompasses the whole gamut of filmic emotions – embracing laugh out loud humour, via cartoon surrealism, to one segment which is tantamount to video installation art – may come as more of a surprise.
Imagine if you were to give 26 film directors a different letter of the alphabet each, then tell them to think of a word starting with that letter and make a short horror film on death based around the chosen word. The result might well be The ABCs of Death, a film so unusual and, quite frankly, off-the-radar, that it defies description.
Those old enough to remember the pulp horror anthologies published by Pan books between the late 1950’s and 1980’s, will recognise what the brains behind The ABCs of Death are clearly trying to achieve – short, sharp, shocks, which jolt the reader, or in this case viewer, with often unexpected and frequently grisly visions. The real problem however is that these 26 tales of terror don’t (understandably given the time constraints) have the opportunity to develop. Rushed from one nauseating scene to the next in a veritable smorgasbord of carnage, the viewer hardly has the chance to establish what’s going on with each new story before it ends, often in a deluge of gore and bloody dismemberment. In some ways this might be considered an advantage, as you are fortunately given little opportunity to dwell long on what is often a barrage of nauseating visuals. Equally, though, this onslaught has a numbingly desensitising effect that, whilst not unusual for much modern horror, is not necessarily something to gloat about.
That the majority of the stories also involve sex or base bodily functions to some degree, shows a lack of imagination and creativity on the part of those behind the films. Given that they were allowed completely free rein in their interpretation of the brief it’s a shame that the participants almost without exception, took a puerile, sometimes infantile, approach. As said, considering the subject matter, this was never going to be a family-friendly film. It could however have been done with some degree of taste and still achieve the same result. The greatest disappointment is the overriding crassness of the majority of the segments. Though entries like director Noboru Iguchi’s ‘F’ for Fart (and yes, the two protagonists really do die as a result of farting) are beautifully visualised, you have to question the justification behind something which manages to rise little above the level of adolescent schoolboy humour. As for American Ti West’s ‘M’ for Miscarriage – the less said the better.
Amongst the dross there are a few gems, the most beautiful of which is without doubt Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet’s ‘O’ for Orgasm. Shot with a darkened minimalism which highlights a flow of fragile bubbles emitted from a woman’s mouth before she expires during the heights of passionate lovemaking, this short film is a work of art which wouldn’t look out of place in New York’s MOMA. Others like ‘Q’ for Quack by Adam Wingard (who was a director on V/H/S ) win by going in the opposite direction and treating the whole thing as a joke, whilst the way in which the titles of each film remain undisclosed until the end adds an element of guessing game fun to the proceedings.
It is however the overriding air of experimental film which is The ABCs of Death‘s ultimate downfall. Where some, as mentioned, are beautifully executed, the majority have a feeling of film student projects, the quality and substance of which may be acceptable for someone starting out, but seems substandard for professionals who are, in most cases, already well established in their careers.
The ABCs of Death is released in the UK & Eire on April 26, 2013, and on DVD & Blu-ray on June 3, 2013.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.