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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The ABC's of Death (2013) review




***WARNING: This review contains some nudity***

The Short Version: Ambitious alphabetical anthology production is mostly a failure, but considering the strict guidelines, it shows who is truly talented and possessing an ability to be imaginative with their limited resources. There's some good shorts, a lot of mediocre to bad ones, and some simply astounding pieces of filmmaking here. Approach with caution and with the realization you're not going to get a significant amount of plot in a 3 to 5 minute running time. Regardless of how this film makes you feel once it's over, there's no denying it's quite an undertaking and original in concept with its tinkering of the anthology platform.

In the late 80s and into the early 90s, the USA Network used to show these short films that were used to fill in the last 5 to 10 minutes of airtime left over from movies that finished a bit early. The ones I remember usually aired after Commander USA, or Saturday Nightmares. The two I vividly recall involved a man building a contraption whose origin and purpose is revealed at the end; and a man who picks up a silent, creepy lady hitchhiker carrying a big bag.

THE ABC's OF DEATH is similar to these, although the shorts are pieced together in an anthology format akin to those famously produced by Amicus Studios and the US produced NIGHT GALLERY television series. And like the assorted tales that utilize the omnibus style, quality varies wildly here.

Producers Ant Timpson (Incredibly Strange Film Festival creator) and Tim League (head of the Alamo Drafthouse chain) invited 26 directors from around the world to participate in this project. Given a letter of the alphabet and asked to pick a word, a brief 3-5 minute short was put together with an allotted $5,000 for a budget. With 26 short films at a total running time of 130 minutes (including opening and ending credits), that doesn't leave a whole lot of room for a plot. Basically, these brief pieces of celluloid are expansions of whatever word the directors chose to bring to visual life. Some of these are more successful than others, but again, the parameters do not allow for much in the way of clarity, or gumption.

Below are my thoughts for each of the 26 shorts, and my interpretation of them. I also list which ones are subtitled, no dialog, or in English. The title and director of each segment appears at the end of each short.


Directed by Nacho Vigalondo (Spain)

A woman attempts to kill her bed-ridden husband as an unexplained apocalypse looms.

Some reviewers gave this first tale high marks, although I couldn't make heads or tails of exactly why this woman wanted to kill her husband. While it's brutal and bloody, the violence is of a cartoonish nature. Personally, I thought throwing boiling oil onto a persons body would result in a bit more than a groan from the victim. This guy takes scalding oil to the face and body like a champ. Outside of the gore, it's a tepid introductory tale to start things off. Subtitled.


Directed by Adrian Garcia Bogliano (Spain)

A hot and bothered couple babysitting a little girl try to get her to bed so they can have sex. They tell her a made up story about an Abominable Snowman who eats the hearts of children that won't go to sleep before a specific time. Unfortunately for them, they receive an unexpected visitor.

Not much substance to this, but it has an EC Comics vibe about it (the little girl is reading an EC style comic in her bedroom). The finish is telegraphed from a lack of originality. The letter 'B' proves to be even less interesting than 'A'. The title is also a bit of a cheat which does this show no favors. 'B is for Bland'. Subtitled.


Directed by Ernesto Diaz Espinoza (South America)

A guy named Bruce investigates a literal hole in the wall in his back yard. Draped in vines and shrubbery, an apparent doppelganger emerges.

A modicum of interest above the previous segment, but again, nothing especially attention-grabbing. It's an interesting idea, but time doesn't permit much explanation resulting in it being mostly disorienting. This short feels like a darker version of GROUNDHOG DAY (1993). The title is successfully realized even though it's difficult to tell if Bruce kills his double, or if the double kills Bruce. Subtitled. 'C is for Confusing'.


Directed by Marcel Sarmiento (United States)

A captured man is part of some bizarre underground fighting ring where he's pitted against a snarling dog.

Dog Bites Man in this grueling tale of a man forced to fight a canine in a deathmatch. Other than one word uttered, this piece is bereft of dialog leaving only music and sound effects to accompany the visuals. It's also shot exclusively in slow motion. The story is pure fantasy, yet animal lovers may cringe during certain moments of this. The best, and most creative of the segments thus far; and this piece would be an intriguing idea if expanded further.


Directed by Angela Bettis (United States)

A man attempts to squash a pesky spider that creeps around in his apartment.

Bettis is best known for her roles in horror movies like MAY (2002), the TV movie version of CARRIE (2002) and THE WOMAN (2011), but here she's behind the camera directing this quirky tale of a lonely guy who gains an unwelcome occupant in his apartment. The short reminded me a great deal of the old NIGHT GALLERY story, 'A Fear of Spiders' from season two. The finish recalls another NIGHT GALLERY show, the infamous 'The Caterpillar' also from season two. You'd be better off watching either one of those if you're looking for more depth. One of the films average segments. English.


Directed by Noboru Iguchi (Japan)

A young school girl and Yumi, her female teacher, begin to share a mutual attraction for one another when suddenly the Earth god farts out a black gas that kills all those who breathe it. But Yumi has a magical farting gas of her own.

This "story" is utterly stupid. Iguchi seems to be channeling various Japanese fetishes with his idiotic, yet strangely entertaining approach. A Kaiju sensibility is immediately erased once the school teacher pulls down her panties and proceeds to fart out a yellow, gaseous stream that eventually sucks the overzealous smeller right into her ass. It makes absolutely no sense, but the chosen word is dutifully visualized in the most comically ridiculous way imaginable. If you saw and enjoyed THE MACHINE GIRL (2008), than you know what to expect here. Subtitled.


Directed by Andrew Traucki (Australia)

A man enters the ocean on his surfboard for the last time.

The director of BLACK WATER (2007) and THE REEF (2010) obviously loves the water. The ocean is the setting of this brief, and perfunctory entry. I assumed Traucki would have had a more engaging entry than this, but as it is, it's as bland as they come. In his defense, he tries to be as creative as this tale would allow by shooting it in first person. The expansive shots of the lonely beach are a plus, though. There's no dialog, and the ending is no great revelation. One of the weakest entries in the film. 'G is for Glad it's Short'.


Directed by Thomas Cappelen Malling (Norway)

A British bulldog fighter pilot is enjoying a drink inside a strip club when he's ambushed by a Nazi disguised as a stripper.

The oddball title refers to a melting body. If nothing else, the director succeeds in creating a live-action feel of an old Tex Avery style cartoon albeit an R rated one. I assume the reason that the two main characters are humanoid dogs falls into the cartoon parameters the director seems to be aiming for. There are some inventive visuals on display, but nothing else. Fans of cartoons will appreciate that aspect of it. Subtitled.


Directed by Jorge Michel Grau (Mexico)

A woman is bound and gagged inside a tub while her husband contemplates, and carries out her death.

Grau's mini-movie is among the best of the bunch of 26. It is the most bleak and nasty of the entire film in its depiction of a woman's torturous death. The camera goes to great lengths to let us know it's the woman's husband who is committing the atrocity. Grau instills some political subtext concerning the femicide occurring in Mexico with a statement that was originally attached to the segment, but was removed and placed during the ending credits for this grueling piece. It reads: 2,015 women murdered in the last 10 years in Mexico, 200 women in a month, the horror is not on the screen. 

For added pathos, the woman being exterminated narrates the whole thing. If all of the shorts matched the intensity of this piece while retaining a wide range of styles, then this movie would have been far more successful in execution. Subtitled.


Directed by Yudai Yamaguchi (Japan)

An executioner has difficulty in severing the head of a samurai during the man's ritual suicide.

The director of the craptacularly bizarre BATTLEFIELD BASEBALL (2003) does a period piece that depicts a darkly comical envisioning of Seppuka. As the samurai is cutting open his belly, the seemingly inexperienced decapitator standing over him is overcome with bizarre hallucinations that cloud his ability to cut off the man's head. Incidentally, Jidai-geki means 'period drama', and the parenthesized 'samurai movie' doesn't necessarily apply, but sounds better in the context of the picture. This short is unnecessarily childish, and one of the throwaway entries. If you're looking for gore, you'll get a payoff. Otherwise, the letter 'J' is useless. 'J is for Junk'. Subtitled.


Directed by Anders Morganthaler (Denmark)

A woman takes a shit only for the shit to try and return to its point of excretion. 

Director Malling's entry was a live-action cartoon, and director Morgenthaler turns in an actual animated film about a woman annoyed by that turd that comes back after it's flushed. I'm sure we've all experienced it, but here, the turd in question is the centerpiece of a short subject with all the affability of a Pink Panther cartoon. It's funny and actually has a cuteness about it till the grim conclusion awakens you to the fact that, as a whole, the movie you're watching is as far from cute as you can possibly get.


Directed by Timo Tjahjanto (Indonesia)

A man wakes up to find himself half-naked and strapped to a chair as an unwilling player in some twisted sexual game of death where the participants are forced to masturbate to increasingly perverse examples of sexual deviancy to stay alive.

Another high concept entry that's as dark and nasty as the 'I' segment; only this one isn't grounded in reality (that we know of, anyways). It's packed with disturbing moments and grotesque imagery (a vaginal eyeball comes to mind) depicting sexual perversions. The short even crosses the line into the realm of pedophilia for maximum shock effect. The men who "lose" in these increasingly ghastly, libidinous experiments are killed off via a modern version of an ancient, and international form of torture and execution. Takashi Miike would be proud.

Pasolini's SALO (1975) is possibly an influence. The grim finale recalls NEKROMANTIK 2 (1991). Mainstream audiences may find familiarity with the HOSTEL movies, too. Tjahjanto's segment may actually be the best, most focused short of the entire film. A masturbatory nightmare. 'L is for Launch Your Lunch'. Subtitled.


Directed by Ti West (United States)

A nerd-looking girl stops up her toilet with a miscarriage. The End.

Considered one of horror's best among the new crop of directors, Ti West is proving to be little more than a one hit wonder of late. His short (possibly the shortest and worst entry in the film) displays zero creativity. The biggest plot point -- unrelated to the film as it may be -- is in wondering just where in the hell the $5,000 went to make this pointless picture. Imagination is non-existent, and it's so vacuous, it makes some of the other lame entries seem genius by comparison. Skip it. 'M is for Motherfucker Didn't Even Try'.


Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun (Thailand)

A man surprises his girlfriend with a talking parrot.

Ti West could have taken some pointers from Thai filmmaker Pisanthanakun. He took a simplistic premise and made something with depth, humor, horror and a ghoulish example of cruel irony as its coda. It's definitely in the EC vein. This show reminded me of that FLINTSTONES episode where Fred got Wilma that talking Dodo Bird that gets Fred and Barney into all sorts of trouble when it just can't seem to keep its beak shut. This short has a similar feel to the 'K' entry -- it's so warm and fuzzy, but finishes up on a nasty note. 'N is for Now that was Funny'. Subtitled.


Directed by Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet (France)

A woman is snuffed out by a mysterious, leather-clad lover during the act of sex.

The duo behind the Giallo AMER (2009) showcase the same love for that popular Italian genre style here. No dialog, but lots of moaning, lashings and sounds of leather rubbing against flesh. Of the handful of artfully done segments, this one is the most focused and controlled. Meticulous in conception and execution, it's one of the better films found in this movie.

P IS FOR PRESSURE (United Kingdom)

Directed by Simon Rumley

A woman living in squalor with three kids wants to buy her daughter a $900 bicycle, but can't afford it. She turns to prostitution, but her money is stolen by an acquaintance. She ends up taking an offer to appear in a special type of movie.

The amazing thing about Rumley's segment is the amount of characterization and pathos he's able to cram into five minutes, and with no dialog to boot. He summarily destroys it, though, when all the pity for this woman is obliterated during the beyond cruel finale; and the last shot does nothing to reaffirm ones hope in humanity. What I took away from this short is that while this woman was trampled on by those around her, she is guilty of the same thing -- but in a literal sense where those more helpless than she are concerned. A viciously uncompromising, cynical, and hypocritical view of society.


Directed by Adam Wingard (United States)

A producer and director have trouble creating a usable subject with the letter 'Q' for their short film in THE ABC's OF DEATH.

One of two self-referential episodes in this movie. It's something of an extension of the previous segment as both ultimately deal with animals in danger. However, Wingard's piece is darkly comical and ends with a bit of poetic justice -- which is all the more fitting after the two men try to justify the killing of a duck by labeling society as the real killers. A pleasantly awkward symphonic score adds to the humor this piece presents. Not memorable, but enjoyable.


Directed by Srdjan Spasojevic (Yugoslavia)

A badly burned man in a hospital bed has his skin periodically removed so it can be used to make 35mm film.

I am unsure just what the director is trying to say or convey here. Switching over to the director commentary is equally frustrating as it consists of Spasojevic narrating about half the segment with a monologue that could easily have been laid over the soundtrack of the film itself. I am assuming this entry (with no dialog, by the way) is about a potential future where film has become extinct and society longs to return to it; so this man has become something of a guinea pig to satisfy the masses. The short recalls Cronenberg's body horror styling when this man (whose face we never see) makes a bullet out of his skin. Visually arresting, but muddled -- at least where this viewer is concerned.


Directed by Jake West (United Kingdom)

A heavily armed woman is chased across the desert by a hulking and hooded assailant.

I wasn't all that enthralled by DOGHOUSE (2009) and didn't see EVIL ALIENS (2005), but Jake West's nitro fueled short is definitely an injection of energy and fast pacing this movie sorely needed. It reminded me of Robert Rodriguez's flashy editing and musical styling while evoking a MAD MAX vibe till the rather gloomy finish when the truth is laid out in front of us as to what we've been witness to. There are clues throughout that allude to what's revealed during the last minute or so of the short. Fast and furious, 'S is for Surprise Ending'.


Directed by Lee Hardcastle (United Kingdom)

A little boy is deathly afraid the toilet is going to come alive and eat him.

Lee Hardcastle is a specialist in claymation. He demonstrates that skill in his innovative segment about a killer toilet and a child's fear of sitting on the commode -- something I can relate to. I remember when I was a kid, I used to feel creeped out sitting on the toilet seat. I felt like something was going to bite me, or try to pull me down the drain. 

The 'T' segment of ABC's is arguably the most creatively artistic; and not just because the entire piece is made by hand, but because of the elaborate main set piece and the outlandish violence that results from it. The monster toilet is actually kinda scary and reminiscent of Carpenter's THE THING (1982). The level of gore is staggering, and possibly more red stuff and viscera is shed than all other segments combined -- despite being totally made of clay. You can see other horror-gore claymation shorts from the director HERE. Fans of ROBOT CHICKEN and MR. BILL take note. 'T is for Toilet Humor'.


Directed by Ben Wheatley (United Kingdom)

A group of townsfolk dig up a vampire and proceed to destroy it.

This is the second first person view segment and while it's nothing spectacular, it's miles away better than Traucke's similarly accomplished short subject. Wheatley's is simplistic (the parameters of the shorts leave little room for creativity), but is of most interest in that it is told from the monsters perspective. We don't know who the monster is, just that these people want to destroy him -- they dig him up, chase him, and eventually capture him and take turns savaging him. It's not a stand out, but far better than some of the other shorts featured in this mixed bag of a movie.


Directed by Kaare Andrews (United States)

In a post apocalyptic world, telekinetic freedom fighters known as Mentals battle against a ruthless police state. A sympathetic female officer defies orders to take a Mental infant's severed, but living head to the Prophet, a man wanted by the government.

If any short film here could be a full length feature, it's this one. It's amazing just how much action and story is crammed into it. Granted, Andrews entry is six minutes -- one more than the five allotted. Still, the SPX are staggering especially considering only $5,000 was the budget for each of the shorts; and Andrews did not pour any of his own money into his project. As astonishing as the finished product is, it's even more startling to know the director built the props and did nearly all the visual effects himself. It would seem the director is a huge fan of the post apocalyptic genre of cinema, and it definitely shows in this visually impressive throwback to that type of film. It's quite an accomplishment for what little resources were made available. The title refers to the cry of a newborn baby. Some of the short uses a 2.35:1 format. 'V is for Very Impressive'.


Directed by Jon Schnepp (United States)

Jon Schnepp furiously runs off wacky, totally outrageous ideas for his short film just as a strange phenomena in the sky causes his ideas to become deadly reality. 

Like the 'Q' entry, Schnepp's WTF! is self-referential in the various ideas the director has for his chosen word. It's also true to its title without being the slightest bit vague or artistically pretentious in design. From the beginning HEAVY METAL tinged animation to its last shot of his live action decapitated noggin being stabbed by a hellish witch, WTF! is a perfect summation of this insane mini epic. It's worth mentioning that the director pumped an additional $4,000 into his film. Funny, ingenious, and extremely clever, and just under four minutes, this is the best trailer for a movie Troma never made.


Directed by Xavier Gens (France)

An obese woman is mercilessly harassed and picked on by a soulless society that delights in ridiculing fat people.

The director of the French horror favorite FRONTIER(S) (2007) slows down the pace, but not the grue in this disheartening look at a society that is essentially a mirror image of our own. Everybody wants a nice body, but nobody wants to be bullied because they don't have one. Gens's short also finds the time to touch on how the media affects our lives in how we want to look and be perceived by others. It's this realistic view of superficiality that complements the disturbing last half of this entry. Grim, glum and gross, XXL goes wildly over the top during the finale, but approaches its subject seriously, and in a provocative, if extreme manner. Subtitled.

Y IS FOR YOUNGBUCK (United States)

Directed by Jason Eisener

A young school boy confronts a creepy, disturbed old man who is a janitor at his school.

I have yet to see Eisener's HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (2011), but his brief segment here is highly sickening in what it implies and also in what it visualizes. It's made all the more bewildering with its 'Flashdance' type soundtrack. 'Y' is bereft of dialog, but not the least bit difficult to follow. In some moments, it's actually difficult to watch. As soon as it begins, the viewer gets an uncomfortable feeling as to the territory this segment is braving. There's also a primal subtext running through it with not only a human vendetta, but one of the animalistic variety. When the kid places a severed deer head on top of his own, it adds another unsettling layer to what could ostensibly be a much longer feature.'Y is for Yuck'.


Directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura (Japan)

A crippled Japanese dictator watches a duel between a Nipponese Nazi girl with a giant, projectile firing penis and a scarred naked woman who fires vegetables from her crotch. Meanwhile, he waits patiently to launch human bombs on the world.

The director of TOKYO GORE POLICE (2008) turns in the single most nonsensical and delirious entry of the entire movie. It's also extremely awful, yet never boring. There's an obsession here with extremities, rice and sushi. Wounds explode in geysers of blood and rice. A Japanese Nazi woman has a gigantic dick that sheathes not only a sword, but rice, too. There's a group of naked Japanese men who scarf down a mixture of vegetables, rice and dick meat which turns them into bombs intent on being starting another World War. 

It's totally insane and has no point. Nishimura seems content on stringing a slew of disconnected images together while tacking on political subtext (The WTC is drawn on a woman's breast while an approaching plane is on the other) in an effort to make viewers think there's some deeper meaning to it all. If you've seen some of his movies, you know ahead of time what you're getting with this wildly incoherent, outrageously offensive mess that takes its inspiration from Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE (1964). The title translates to 'Extinction'. Subtitled and English.

Overall, I thought THE ABCs of DEATH was a rather daring, if unremarkable experiment. I wasn't particularly enamored with it, nor do I see myself watching it again any time soon. However, it does provide a provocative canvas by which one or more of the directors could paint a much bigger picture of their subject at some point in time. Some of the films are worthy of expansion. There's inarguably some striking, even controversial imagery here, as well. But on the whole, THE ABCs OF DEATH is more of an appetizer than a main course.

This review is representative of the Magnet DVD.


Jeremy [Retro-Z] said...

this is the best review of this film i think out there, very nice breakdown and then your thoughts.. i have this film and i now know i cannot watch it, wow... what the hell happened to me. :)

great job!

Maynard Morrissey said...

Excellent and highly informative review. You mentioned lots of stuff I didn't know about, like the bonus budget for WTF or that director Kaare Andrews did almost everything by himself.

Nice to see that you enjoyed FART. Most people hated it, but I thought it was absolutely hilarious :D

About REMOVED: I'm not exactly sure what it's really about, but I read in a review it could be about the director's experiences he made before and after his scandalous debut "A Serbian Film".

You haven't seen HOBO yet? Go, watch it! I know you will love it! Badass 70s/80s grindhouse-insanity :)

venoms5 said...

Thanks for the kind remarks, Jeremy. You should still watch the film, though. It's worth seeing at least once. There's such a variance of artistic expression in it, and some of the ideas are worth exploring further. I bought it on a whim, and although it's just average to me on the whole, I don't regret buying it.

venoms5 said...

Harry, I sought out info on some of the individual directors online via interviews and it made me appreciate those segments even more.

FART was absolutely stupid, but I did laugh a lot.

I found some reviews with different interpretations of REMOVED, but that's what I made of it. The commentary for that segment was no help, either, and I tried to stay away from the commentary (each director does his own) so as to formulate my own view on the picture. There's lots of extras including deleted scenes which I haven't watched yet. And I have yet to see SERBIAN FILM.

I gave HOBO a pass since a few of the other 70s wannabe style exploitation movies were very poor, imo. They seem to try too hard and end up being lousy, at least to me. There's something about those older movies that the new ones cannot duplicate. I will likely go back and see it, though. :)

Eric said...

Really enjoyed reading your take on each segment. I've been underwhelmed by recent anthologies, so I was happy to see that this one at the very least had a novel concept. I felt more or less like you did about the film as a whole. Many of the segments were outstanding (D, L, O, P, X, and Y were my faves), but the majority were just sort of lukewarm. And I really want to know what Ti West did with that $5000.

I'd give Hobo with a Shotgun a try if you found Eisner's short intriguing. While HOBO did ride in on the coattails of the faux-grindhouse trend, it felt more like a well-done Troma film to me (i.e. entertaining, but not without its flaws). I'm really interested to see how his next feature turns out.

Francisco Gonzalez said...

Im curious to check this out, it looks like an eclectic mix! Something interesting should be in there somewhere...

venoms5 said...

@ Eric: TRICK R TREAT was good, but V/H/S was just awful. Awful. I will most likely check out HOBO soon, then.

venoms5 said...

@ Fran: I am sure there's something in there you'll like, Fran. If anything, I think you'll appreciate some of the artistic flourishes in there. But be prepared to be underwhelmed by a lot of it.

Maynard Morrissey said...

I guess I need to buy the DVD :)

Yes, FART was stupid, but that's exactly why I loved it so much. You should check out other movies from director Iguchi, like "Dead Sushi" or "Karate Robo Zaborgar" :-)

You have to see Serbian Film and Hobo ASAP, especially Hobo. Don't worry, it's far from being something like the "Grindhouse" double feature.
Like Eric said, it's more like a good ol' Troma-film. Ultra-violent, super-hilarious, imaginative and beautiful.

Aaron said...

Yo! I skipped out on reading this until I could actually see the movie, so now I'm here to leave some feedback. I pretty much agree with you completely; it seems we enjoyed/laughed at/disliked/were baffled by the same ones, although I think I enjoyed the film as a whole more than you.

G is indeed pretty weak and not very imaginative. I wonder what that director did with his 5,000 dollars? However, I kinda liked it, because it's the only one that made me think. I was a bit confused as to what happened initially, but then I took the title into consideration and remembered the character grabbed what looked like blocks of wood (or something) out of his car, presumably to weigh himself down. So yeah, the fact that it took me a few seconds to register that says something, and, for me, it's one of the sadder deaths in the film. I've been surrounded by ocean pretty much all my life and I know people who've drowned, so I guess it resonated with me.

I hate Ti West after seeing this.

I don't really have anything else to add. Keep up the great work, sir!

venoms5 said...

@ Harry: I don't regret buying the DVD. I think I paid $10 for it? I will surely see HOBO at some point, but will go in with (very) low expectations just to be on the safe side.

@ Aaron: I'd recommend buying the DVD as it's loaded down with extras. The commentary track is unique, too. I am actually curious to see the sequel, though.

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