The ABCs of Death: Short-by-Short Review
The ABCs of Death is an anthology horror film that gave 26 directors from around the world free reign to do whatever they wanted with one simple word: Death. Each director was given a letter and had to create a short subject surrounding around a word of their choosing starting with that letter. What follows ismy review of the film, one segment at a time.
A is for Apocalypse (Nacho Vigalondo)
Not much going on here. A woman butchers her husband…because the apocalypse is coming? She slices open his hand and neck and beats him with a hot frying pan. There is essentially nothing to critique here, it’s just an empty two minute sequence that ends with a foreboding red light that I guess is meant to be the end times.
B is for Bigfoot (Adrian Garcia Bogliano)
A man and his girlfriend tell his child cousin about a superstition involving the Abominable Snowman in order to get her to go to sleep so the couple can gave sex. They do have sex, awkwardly and in perfect view of a scarred stranger who is standing outside. The stranger butchers them with what appears to be a pizza cutter, then leaves. Spoiler: the child sleeps fine.
Again, not much here. There is little to do with Bigfoot, unless you consider Bigfoot and the Abominable Snowman to be synonymous. Even so, the Abominable Snowman doesn’t kill anyone, it’s just a blind homeless guy. If your goal is to see breasts, you’ve come to the right short. For quality horror, look elsewhere.
C is for Cycle (Ernesto Diaz Espinoza)
We open on a bloodstain. Then immediately fade to a couple sleeping in bed. The woman claims to hear something, and the man goes to investigate. We fade to black again. It is morning, and a man walks out into his yard to find a hole (?), which he is sucked into (?). Fade to black again. He wakes up lying on his lawn at night. He enters the house to see himself sleeping in bed with his wife. All right, folks, what we have here is a time loop. The best way to get out of this one is to stop watching The ABCs of Death, pronto. You should be free of any symptoms in a matter of days, once you get the taste of poor filmmaking out of your mouth.
In all seriousness, this is the first interesting idea that the movie puts forth. Yet, it has no closure, lacks tension, and never extends past being anything more than an interesting thought experiment. A better effort than A and B, but still not a worthwhile short.
D is for Dogfight (Marcel Sarmiento)
This short opens on a pretty cool shot of a man’s face. He is preparing for some sort of underground boxing match. There is a slow motion sequence that goes on for far too long, and we find out that what this man is preparing to box is a dog. Well, that’s fun.
The two combatants bite each other ferociously (still in slow motion mind you), until the dog eventually rips his neck open. Only, it doesn’t. Instead, it turns on its owner, who we find out actually stole the dog from…the guy who was fighting the dog? I’m not going to try and make sense of it.
This short is incredibly strange, both in its subject matter and filming technique. Why would anyone want to watch a man beat up a dog, for one thing? And the whole short is in slow motion. Initially, I was intrigued by the shot structure and the slow-mo, but it was far too much. Plus, the twist ending was uselessly confusing.
E is for Exterminate (Angela Bettis)
There is a spider in a house. The man who lives there wants to kill it. It terrorizes him. He kills it, but it had already laid eggs in his ear. The end.
F is for Fart (Noboru Iguchi)
This title sounds promising.
“If there was a God [girl farts, literally blowing her skirt up]…sensitive girls wouldn’t be so ashamed whenever they had to fart.” Maybe that opening line is enough to sum up this short.
But no, there is so much more. I can’t even begin to explain the f***ing brilliant insanity that is this short. This is the most absurd thing I have ever witnessed in film. I don’t even want to synopsize it. This is in no way a good short. However, if you are going to watch this film, just skip to Noboru Iguchi’s entry. I still don’t understand. Why? Just, why?
G is for Gravity (Andrew Traucki)
This short is a POV shot of a guy going surfing. He gets out a few feet, I would say, and is immediately pulled underwater. We see blood flooding the water, and then a shot of the surfboard. The end.
They could have taken this minute-long snippet out and given the extra time to the fetish porn director from F. Seriously, go watch F is for Farts. It’s incomprehensibly ridiculous. Like, off the walls bat s**t crazy.
H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion (Thomas Malling)
This is what we need at this point of the film, some good old science. That’s what this short is about, right? Science? We need a good renewable energy lesson to cleanse our pallet after all of these mediocre-to-downright-useless shorts.
What’s that you say? It’s actually about a biker-dog and a Nazi stripper-fox? That can’t be right…what does that have to do with hydro-electricity? There’s a pit in the ground with electrified water? Okay, you’re right, that does make sense.
For generosity’s sake, the surrealism of this short is actually pretty effective. There’s clear humor here that I can actually get behind, considering what the viewer has been subjected to so far. And I have to give points for originality. Who would have thought that I’d be saying that a short about humanoid animals in a strip club that has abrupt Nazi overtones is one of the best of the film so far? I certainly didn’t see it coming.
I is for Ingrown (Jorge Michel Grau)
A man sits in a bathroom, where he has a woman tied up. He injects her with something and leaves. She then begins scratching her skin raw and vomiting. It’s pretty gross.
All right, Alex, try to look at the positive this time. It’s not fair just to take cheap shots at all of these shorts. The voiceover is interesting here, I guess. It doesn’t really lead to anything in the end, but it’s decently written. What I don’t understand is the title. What is “ingrown” in this short? Am I missing something?
J is for Jidai-geki (Samurai Movie) (Yudai Yamaguchi)
This short is about ritual suicide. Only, the person who is about to be cut open can’t stop laughing and making funny faces. And by funny faces, I mean surreal, slapstick Claymation faces. See, guys, suicide can be funny?
Like H, we move back to a humorous take on death. It does take the serious ritual of Seppuku and turn it on its head (pun intended?), but it’s far more strange than funny (Except for the hyper-perspiring face gag. I did laugh at that at first).
K is for Klutz (Anders Morgenthaler)
The first animated film of the bunch, the plot of this short revolves around a woman going to the bathroom. The toilet doesn’t flush, so her first instinct is to shove all of the toilet paper into the bowl and try again. Anyway, the turd won’t go down and starts hopping around and following her. It just wants to go back where it came from…kind of.
Another humorous attempt, it has the originality points from me. But, I would never ask to see a short like this in a million years. I will say that (so far, at least) the humorous shorts are faring much better than the attempted serious ones.
L is for Libido (Timo Tjahjanto)
We open on an Eyes Wide Shut party in which two men wake up strapped to chairs. A woman strips naked in front of them and the two men somehow know what they have to do. The loser of this sick game gets stabbed Cannibal Holocaust style. So…the stakes are pretty high. Considering there are numerous “stages” to this tournament…you know what, I can’t in good conscience synopsize this any further. Just…the endurance that guy has! Also, a strangely placed eye heightens the confusion even further.
I didn’t need to see this. This is A Serbian Film level f***ed up (and yes, his short is coming up pretty soon. I kind of thought this was his for a while). Certain parts of this were actually filmed in interesting ways. It’s a shame that possible cinematographic talent is being wasted on literal torture porn. If you don’t like disturbing stuff (for one, you probably wouldn’t be interested in this movie in the first place), just skip this one. If your idol is the Marquis de Sade, this is right up your alley.
M is for Miscarriage (Ti West)
Oh God, can it really get worse than that last one? M is for Miscarriage!? Hopefully Ti West doesn’t try to make this one funny.
Nope, he kind of does. It’s like a fun situational comedy bit…only it’s absolutely disturbing to do that, so it’s not fun at all. And what a horrendous close-up. If you’re already skipping L, go ahead and skip past this one while you’re at it. Ti West, I expected better from you.
N is for Nuptials (Banjong Pisanthanakun)
This comedy bit lands far better, as a bird mimes the sounds of a man cheating on his boyfriend after it mimes asking her to marry him. I can get behind this one. Thank you, Banjong Pisanthanakun, for cleansing my pallet at the mid-way point of this disastrous movie.
O is for Orgasm (Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet)
The opening shots of this short are pretty beautiful, in comparison to others in the film thus far. Close ups of body parts and the tip of a lit cigarette set a sensual mood. The flashes between the image of a closed eye and the tip of the cigarette are particularly enrapturing. The images continue: bubbles float out of a woman’s mouth, a voodoo doll is burned through the stomach by a cigarette, the woman folds into a leather couch. But there are also distortions. Colors change into neon greens and reds. A man dressed in leather invades the initially sensual scene.
Despite it being a depiction of rape and murder, this scene is actually incredibly well put together. The images are mesmerizing in a way, although disturbing at the same time. Comparatively, this is the best short of the lot so far. It is, at the very least, aesthetically pleasing.
P is for Pressure (Simon Rumley)
A kid wants a bike. Her mother wants to buy it for her birthday. So she works overtime hours (did I mention she was a prostitute?).
This short is also shot fairly well, and the lack of dialogue makes it a pretty interesting watch. It begins quiet and eerie, but devolves into implied animal cruelty that is downright reprehensible. The short succeeds in pushing buttons, which I guess is all that it was going for, but it could have went in a different direction entirely that could have made it a worthwhile short.
Q is for Quack (Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett)
Were you the person from before who was only looking for breasts? This short has got you covered on that front. Shot two: full rack. Enjoy yourself.
For the rest of us, this is Adam Wingard’s short. He is perhaps the best known director in the bunch, with films like You’re Next, The Guest (my review of The Guest can be found here), and V/H/S under his belt. In this vignette, Adam Wingard plays himself. He is struggling to come up with the idea for his The ABCs of Death short. Pretty meta, huh? For their segment, he and co-director Simon Barrett decide to make a real snuff film by murdering a duck. Instead, they shoot each other. It’s actually fairly humorous. It also shows that Adam Wingard probably has more important things to do than film a segment for a movie called The ABCs of Death.
R is for Removed (Srdjan Spasojevic)
A man is in a hospital, where his scarred flesh is removed and made into a 35mm film reel. He is then placed in a cage in the middle of room, where people are allowed to crowd around him and take photos (and lick him?). The man eventually escapes, killing everyone in his path.
This film is shot and lit quite well, coming from one-time feature film director Srdjan Spasojevic (A Serbian Film). There are some clear artistry at work here, including a train motif (the director utilizes the famous Arrival of a Train at La Ciotet in one of the first shots), but it ultimately goes to waste for the sake of a bloodbath. I’ve heard this argued about Spasojevic before, that he can (or already has, although I strongly disagree with that sentiment) make a masterpiece film. I wouldn’t be quick to shoot that down. A Serbian Film is the most unwatchable piece of cinema I’ve ever subjected myself to, but it shows some directorial talent, as does this short. But Spasojevic has to move away from shock torture before I can give his work merit.
S is for Speed (Jake West)
Somewhat a spaghetti western pastiche, S is for Speed follows a woman and her captor as they try to outrun a menacing demon. Think Death Proof without Quentin Tarantino’s masterful eye. Only, it’s a chase film with a twist, particularly with a play on the title (which I admittedly saw coming before the short began. However, it was a pretty effective twist by director Jake West nonetheless.
This short was decent, although fairly straightforward. The chase scene lasts about ten seconds, but the ending was satisfying considering the overall length of the vignette.
T is for Toilet (Lee Hardcastle)
A Claymation piece, this short is about a child who is afraid to use the toilet. And with good reason.
The animation in this piece is well done, especially near the climax. It is an inventive use of Claymation to tell a bloody tale about a killer toilet monster. It’s darkly humorous, almost to the extreme, but it does its job. Maybe I’ve lowered the bar so much at this point in the film, but I’m starting to enjoy some of these shorts.
U is for Unearthed (Ben Wheatley)
Another continuous point of view shot, this short follows a vampire as it is unearthed and attacked. Like most of the others, the vignette is largely plotless. The scared vampire is cornered and decapitated, and that’s it. There are some cool lighting techniques with the fire-orange illumination coming in through the trees. But, like the other POV attempt, there isn’t much else to say about this one.
V is for Vagitus (The Cry of a Newborn) (Kaare Andrews)
It is Vancouver, 2035. A robot police force is attacking what appears to be some sort of militia rebellion. There is a well-choreographed fight scene. Apparently, in the future, population is highly regulated and mostly illegal. The police encounter a family who have populated illegally, and attempt to apprehend them. The mother tries some Jedi mind tricks, which clearly don’t work on robots. The family is ripped to shreds, and further chaos ensues.
Conceptually bold for a five minute short, the plot of the film still manages to go nowhere. Aside from the action sequences, there isn’t anything memorable about it.
W is for WTF! (Jon Schnepp)
A demon and a warlock kidnap a naked woman and gut her, while a knight futilely attempts to save her and is electrocuted. That is the one minute animated cold open to this short. Then it cuts to the directors arguing over the creation of their segment. It’s a funny scene, because it pokes fun at the premise of the film (a premise that definitely deserves to be made fun of). Clown zombies descend on the filmmakers and an acid-trip level surreal montage rolls. It’s delightfully messed up, and even makes nods to some classic horror films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
I would recommend this short. It is funny and zany. Really, it’s a breath of fresh air compared to this movie as a whole.
X is for XXL (Xavier Gens)
A woman is ridiculed by seemingly everybody she encounters for being too fat. This is strange, because a) she isn’t all that fat and b) so few people act that cruel in real life. When she gets home, she literally stuffs her face full of some greasy food that I can’t identify and straight butter. She then strips and heads to the bathroom, where she tries some at-home liposuction and facial reconstructive surgery, to expected results.
X is for XXL is gross-out horror with a thinly veiled social statement (don’t make fun of fat people?). The cross-cutting between the protagonist and a bikini commercial model during the climax is interesting, but it doesn’t make up for the useless violence that is instigated by unrealistic social interactions.
Y is for Youngbuck (Jason Eisener)
A pedophile teaches a boy how to hunt. It’s no Hobo with a Shotgun, Jason Eisener, but I did enjoy the shot structure and 80s montage music. And that janitor is downright horrifying. This short is effectively gross, creepy, bloody and terrifying. I almost hate to say it, but I enjoyed this little rape revenge flick. It makes good use of its unsettling subject matter without going over the top as other shorts in this anthology do.
Z is for Zetsumetsu (Extinction) (Yoshihiro Nishimura)
More Nazis…kind of. I don’t know for sure what is going on in this vignette. There is a Dr. Strangelove impersonator, naked women, and maggots eating people’s faces. And a giant phallus, used for…well, I don’t really want to get into the details. Apparently, this short is about race relations in America…? And the twist ending is that it’s really just a cooking show.
The action sequences in this are far less superior in choreography than other action shorts in this anthology (even with the boob punch and genital catapult). And everything else about it is absurd and mediocre. I think this line of dialogue will sum it all up nicely: “We yellow people love tangerines.” Does it make more sense now? No, well then I can’t help you.
Overall, this film has conceptual potential. Gathering 26 filmmakers from across the globe to create an anthology sounds fantastic, in theory. Perhaps if the producers slimmed that number down to 10 and gave each director more time to create a narrative with their short, then this movie would have been something more watchable. They already knew that they were going to make a sequel when this came out, so why not have The ABCs of Death part one, going through the first ten letters, and continue from there with the sequel. That would guarantee a franchise with the concept and possibly make for quality vignettes.
Also, the tone of this movie is all over the map. You can’t rightfully jump from an animated short about killer poop to a short about deadly underground masturbation tournaments. I understand the directors were given free reign with this, but they could have at least been limited to serious or humorous. The tone shifts were too jarring to tolerate, and they completely took me out of the film.
Beyond this, all I can say positively about this film as a whole is the transitions between segments. The opening shots dissolving in were cool. That’s all I can concede in ways of compliments. But hey, at least I learned my alphabet.
- F is for Fart
- H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion
- N is for Nuptials
- O is for Orgasm
- S is for Speed
- T is for Toilet
- W is for WTF!
- Y is for Youngbuck
So I just tore this movie apart. I’m not a fan. But, if you want to give it a watch, you can find it on Amazon (F is for Fart…trust me):
As always, thanks for reading!
Have you seen The ABCs of Death? What did you think? What were your favorite/least favorite shorts? Let me know in the comments!
–Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)