ABCs of Death, The (US - DVD R1)
Gabe enjoys just over one half of these 26 shorts and calls that a nominal win...
The horror anthology is a long film tradition that has seen something of a resurgence recently, including V/H/S (and its upcoming sequel), Trick ‘R Treat, Chillerama, Little Deaths, and The Theatre Bizzare. Though none of these films were particularly popular at the box office (most barely received theatrical releases at all), they’ve created strong buzz throughout the horror fan community and been popular enough on home video to garner more buzz. Most of these films haven’t quite lived up to the expectations their directorial staffs and concepts promised, but they tend to at least be unique and often more daring than the bulk of modern genre output – many of them are even released without the limitations of a MPAA rating. The ABCs of Death is the latest in the line and possibly the most ambitious standalone anthology film ever attempted – it features 26 shorts, one for each letter of the alphabet, and each written & directed by a different up-and-coming genre favourite (some more favoured than others, of course). Since it’s an unconventional movie, I’m going to take an unconventional approach to review – a list-view of mini-reviews.
- A is for Apocalypse – written & directed by Nacho Vigalondo ( Time Crimes: Vigalondo gets things off to a strong start with shocking, painful, and, most importantly, funny violence. There’s a strong set-up, a good punch line, and I’m left wanting more.
- B is for Bigfoot – written & directed by Adrian Garcia Bogliano ( Penumbra): Bogliano’s short is hampered by a cheap look and concept that requires a little more screentime to properly fester.
- C is for Cycle – written & directed by Ernesto Diaz Espinoza ( Mandrill):Espinoza’s episode is even chintzier-looking than Boliano’s (which is too bad, because Mandrill was so colourful), but an interesting concept (seemingly borrowed from Vigalondo’s Time Crimes, ironically enough).
- D is for Dogfight – written & directed by Marcel Sarmiento ( Deadgirl):I haven’t seen any of Sarmiento’s other work, but, if the visual control of this short is any indication, he’s a master of style over substance. Cool slow-motion photography and an amusing punchline (no pun intended).
- E is for Exterminate – written & directed by Angela Bettis ( Roman, star of May): Based on the emotional strengths of Roman, Bettis’ short is pretty disappointing. Despite a decent digital spider effect, this one looks like it was shot in a matter of hours and the concept doesn’t really go anywhere.
- F is for Fart – written & directed by Noboru Iguchi ( The Machine Girl):This one looks a lot like Iguchi’s other films – soft focus, goofy special effects and all – but wins some points for being so unbelievably stupid that I actually laughed. Yes, I am shamed.
- G is for Gravity – written & directed by Andrew Traucki ( The Reef):Traucki shoots entirely in a first-person, subjective view, but the gimmick doesn’t cover the lack of content.
- H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion – written & directed by Thomas Malling ( Norwegian Ninja): Malling’s furry dream scores for its early Peter Jackson meets Spike Jones weirdness factor and makes about as much sense as I’d expect, based on his last feature-length release.
- I is for Ingrown – written & directed by Jorge Michel Grau ( We Are What We Are): Grau shoots one of the better-looking and more disturbing shorts, but his lack of humour is definitely a problem, given the episodes that surround his.
- J is for Jidai-geki – written & directed by Yûdai Yamaguchi ( Battlefield Baseball): Yamaguchi’s usual sense of gruesome and ridiculous humour shines here, despite the joke overstaying its welcome.
- K is for Klutz – written & directed by Anders Morgenthaler ( Princess):Morgenthaler presents the first of two animated shorts. This one would be right at home at a Spike & Mike festival.
- L is for Libido – written & directed by Timo Tjahjanto ( Macabre):Tjahjanto’s episode was likely a crowd favourite for its utter vulgarity when ABCs of Death showed in theaters and is definitely among the film’s most disturbing entries. I didn’t enjoy watching it, but have to give it credit for pushing the boundaries so far without actually putting most of its implied grotesqueries on screen.
- M is for Miscarriage – written & directed by Ti West ( House of the Devil): And so we come to the Ti West episode, in all its lo-fi, anti-glory. Thankfully, it is the shortest of the shorts.
- N is for Nuptials – written & directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun ( Shutter): Pisanthanakun’s short is unexpectedly whimsical and appropriately brief. Another well-told joke.
- O is for Orgasm – written & directed by Bruno Forzani & Héléne Cattet ( Amer): Forzani & Cattet have made something of a companion piece to Amer. It’s psychedelic and beautifully recalls surrealist giallo motifs.
- P is for Pressure – written & directed by Simon Rumley ( Red, White & Blue): Rumley’s tone poem is a good follow-up to O is for Orgasm and one of the more accomplished shorts in terms of pure artistic endeavor.
- Q is for Quack – written & directed by Adam Wingard ( Home Sick): Wingard and co-writer Simon Barrett play themselves in the film’s most meta and funniest episode. I’m glad to know mumblecore is good for something.
- R is for Removed – written & directed by Srdjan Spasojevic ( A Serbian Film): I still haven’t seen A Serbian Film yet, but Spasojevic’s reputation precedes him and sets expectations for nastiness pretty high. This short doesn’t disappoint with its graphic violence, hyper-saturated photography, strong soundtrack, and weird Clint Eastwood references.
- S is for Speed – written & directed by Jake West ( Evil Aliens):West’s short is dopey and overambitious, which is better than dopey and unambitious.
- T is for Toilet – written & directed by Lee Hardcastle ( Done in 60 Seconds series): Hardcastle won the contest held to decide the film’s 26th entry with a gonzo claymation creature-feature. It’s pretty great.
- U is for Unearthed – written & directed by Ben Wheatley ( Kill List):Like Traucki’s, Wheatley shoots using a series of subjective P.O.V. images. This time, the gimmick is anchored with a cooler concept that allows the audience to fill in the story blanks.
- V is for Vagitus (The Cry of a Newborn Baby) – written & directed by Kaare Andrews ( Altitude): Andrews gets incredibly ambitious with his tiny budget and makes a special effects-heavy action sequence inspired by the likes of The Terminator and Judge Dredd. His plot-heavy, somewhat unoriginal concept is well-served by the brief runtime, though I can’t help but assume he’s treating the format as a springboard for a feature-length version.
- W is for WTF! – written & directed by Jon Schnepp ( Metalocalypse): Schnepp also takes a meta approach to the material. It’s a little over-directed and over-busy, but is conceptually clever and right at home with his Adult Swim roots.
- X is for XXL – written & directed by Xavier Gens ( Frontier(s)): Gens leaves the big-budget gloss of Hitman behind and gives the film a boost of French Extreme cinema with perhaps a nod to fellow countryman Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. The Requiem for a Dream-like intensity is genuinely disturbing.
- Y is for Youngbuck – written & directed by Jason Eisener ( Hobo with a Shotgun): Eisener’s arthouse by way of Troma style is on full display here. This short is silly, offensive, and beautifully shot. The synthesizer score, from Power Glove, is a really nice touch.
- Z is for Zetsumetsu (Extinction) – written & directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura ( Tokyo Gore Police): Nishimura closes things out with one of his patently colourful, graphic, and nonsensical effects-fests. His feature-length films are so ridiculously episodic and overlong already that the format serves him well. Assuming you like what he does.
The ABCs of Death was reportedly shot on a series of formats, including digital and traditional film. I was really hoping to review a Blu-ray copy to fully appreciate the series of 26 different cinematographic concepts, but product was limited, so I’m making do with an anamorphically enhanced, SD DVD copy. Sometimes, the differentiations are obvious, especially when the filmmakers push the limitations of the various formats to create a more stylized look. The usual SD limitations apply – slightly smudgy background details, small-scale blocking effects, banding effects – but there’s nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, the overall details are pretty sharp, without a lot of edge enhancement, and the colour quality is quite vibrant (depending on the choice of cinemagraphic style, of course). The more vivid shorts, like Y is for Youngbuck, feature a bit of blooming and the more roughly-shot episodes have bleeding/spotty hues.
The lack of uncompressed audio should be a disappointment, but a DVD is a DVD, and this Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is perfectly capable. Each short runs on a minuscule budget and this shows in terms of thin sound design. Few of the directors even bother layering noise outside of the center channel, making this more of a 2.0 track on average. Episodes like E is for Exterminate, F is for Fart, and W is for WTF! are clearly mixed in stereo with basically nothing landing in the center. Standout episodes include D is for Dogfight (throbbing music and slow motion sound effects), H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion (it has an artificial sound quality, but is certainly busy), O is for Orgasm (delicate, abstract noise with directional enhancement), P is for Pressure (choppy and punchy sound editing), R is for Remove (huge dynamic range in the musical score), and V is for Vagitus (heavy action effects, including machine sounds, flying bullets, and explosions). The musical is also quite varied in terms of sound quality
The extras begin with a group commentary track, including producers Ant Timpson and Tim League, title designer Aaron Becker, and the various directors (sometimes accompanied by cinematographers and other crew members), all cramming as much information as they can into the runtime of their short film. The sound of the track is sometimes phone/Skype call-quality (Ben Wheatley actually gets a call on the other line while recording), some of the directors have really thick accents (some of the ESL directors mostly speak in their mother tongue with subtitles), and not everyone is particularly good at talking about their work, but the speed required of each commentator makes for a full-bodied experience. The only break with tradition is Srdjan Spasojevic, who treats the commentary as a narration track for the character in the movie. For the record – F is for Fart was apparently inspired by Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Other extras include:
- A is for Apocalypse: Oil Burn Effects (1:10)
- B is for Bigfoot: Making Of (3:00)
- C is for Cycle: Deleted Scenes (3:30)
- D is for Dogfight: Making Of (7:00)
- H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion: Making Of (6:40)
- I is for Ingrown: Behind the Scenes (6:40)
- J is for Jidai-Geki: Behind the Scenes (6:30)
- R is for Removed: Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery
- T is for Toilet: Behind the Scenes (3:00)
- V is for Vagitus: Deleted Scene and Animatics (5:40)
- W is for WTF!: Behind the Scenes (7:40)
- AXS TV: A Look at the ABCs of Death (4:20)
- Do You Know Your ABCs? Trailer (1:40)
- Other Magnolia/Magnet trailers
The ABCs of Death is likeable in its ambition. The quality of the 26 parts is spotty, but I think the spirit of experimentation overrides the uneven success rate. It’s not perfect and not for everyone, but those of us that know what we’re in for will probably enjoy ourselves – assuming we remember that A) the filmmakers had very limited budgets, B) it’s not, strictly speaking, a horror movie, and C) many of the filmmakers took the film as a challenge to be comically offensive.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 21st June 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Various Languages
Extras: 30 Member Filmmaker Commentary Track, A is for Apocalypse: Oil Burn Effects, B is for Bigfoot: Making Of, C is for Cycle: Deleted Scenes, H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion: Making Of, I is for Ingrown: Behind the Scenes, J is for Jidai-Geki: Behind the Scenes, R is for Removed: Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery, T is for Toilet: Behind the Scenes, T is for Toilet: Behind the Scenes, V is for Vagitus: Deleted Scene and Animatics, W is for WTF!: Behind the Scenes, AXS TV: A Look at the ABCs of Death, Do You Know Your ABCs?, Magnolia Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Various (See Review)
Cast: Sarah Bonrepaux, Hiroko Yashiki, Erik Aude, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Peter Pedrero, Fraser Corbett
Genre: Action, Comedy, Crime, Horror, Sci-Fi, Short and Thriller
Length: 0 minutes
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