The ABCs of Death (Blu-ray)

Can’t wait for Campbell’s alphabet soup of death.

The horror genre is in flux right now. The only frights coming from Hollywood these days are weak ones—torture for the sake of torture, unnecessary remakes, or PG-rated jump scares. But the genre isn’t dead. Out on the fringes, overseas, in festivals, and in the indie trenches, there are some interesting things going on, where a handful of horror filmmakers are creating fear flicks that are quirky and experimental.

Also, these horror outsiders apparently all know each other. They’ve formed a community of sorts, collaborating on various projects. That leads us to this film, The ABCs of Death. Does it get an A…or a whole bunch of Fs?

Twenty-six short horror films, one for each letter, starting with “A” and taking us all the way to “Z.” Across the alphabet, you’ll witness murders, monsters, and mutilations of every size and shape.

OK, just who are all these so-called up-and-coming horror directors?

A: Nacho Vigalondo, director of Timecrimes.
B: Adrian Garcia Bogliano, director of Penumbra and writer of Here Comes the Devil.
C: Ernesto Diaz Espinoza, director of Mirageman and Kiltro.
D: Marcel Sarmiento, director of Deadgirl.
E: Angela Bettis, director of Roman, and actress in May and The Woman.
F: Noboru Iguchi, writer-director of The Machine Girl and Karate-Robo Zaborgor.
G: Andrew Traucki, director of Black Water and The Reef.
H: Thomas Malling, director of Norwegian Ninja.
I: Jorge Michel Grau, writer-director of We Are What We Are.
J: Yudai Yamaguchi, co-writer of Versus and director of Battlefield Baseball and Dead Ball.
K: Anders Morgenthaler, director of Echo.
L: Timo Tjahanto, director of Macabre and contributor to V/H/S/ 2.
M: Ti West, director of House of the Devil and The Innkeepers.
N: Banjong Pisanthanakun, director of Shutter and Phobia 2.
O: Bruno Forzani and Helene Catett, co-writers and co-directors of Amer.
P: Simon Rumley, director of Red White and Blue and The Living and the Dead.
Q: Adam Wingard, director of A Horrible Way to Die and the framing scenes from V/H/S.
R: Srdjan Spasojevic, director of A Serbian Film.
S: Jake West, director of Doghouse and Razor Blade Smile.
T: Lee Hardcastle, an indie animator whose short earned a spot in the film by entering a “26th director” contest on the movie’s website.
U: Ben Wheatley, director of Down Terrace and Kill List.
V: Kaare Andrews, director of Altitude and writer/artist of the graphic novel Spider-Man: Reign.
W: Jon Schnepp, director of numerous episodes of Metalocalypse and The Venture Bros.

X: Xavier Gens, director of Frontier(s) and Hitman.
Y: Jason Eisener, director of Hobo With a Shotgun.
Z: Yoshihiro Nishimura, director of Tokyo Gore Police and Mutant Girls Squad.

It’s an anthology film, and like most (all?) anthology films, some sequences are better than others. Because each short is only a few minutes in length, there’s not a lot of time to build suspense or develop characters, so the filmmakers skip right to the bloodletting. Most of the filmmakers want to shock you, either with surprise twists or graphic gore effects. Some of the shorts will clue you in on what each letter stands for, while others keep you guessing, using the word’s reveal as its final twist.

The better shorts are the ones that hint to a bigger picture, as if there is a whole other movie happening around the short. Andrews comes up with an ambitious, action-packed sci-fi tale, Bettis and Spasojevic dream up some intriguing “monster movie” concepts, and Gans is one of the few who manages some genuine sympathy for his protagonist, even amid one of the movie’s goriest moments. None of these shorts have a complex plot, but many of them demonstrate some strong visual style, and you keep watching, wondering what gruesome sight we’ll confront next.

When the shorts attempt some humor, that’s when The ABCs of Death hits its low points. The, for lack of a better world, wacky shorts are disappointing. This is comedy at its most juvenile. I hope you like toilets, because you’re going to see a lot of them in this movie, and you’re expected to chortle every time one shows up. Rather than think up an exciting or intriguing horror concept for their short, the filmmakers’ attitudes instead seem to be, “Look how gross I can be.”

Despite the miniscule budgets, the movie looks great on Blu-ray, with impressive detail and color, including naturalistic flesh tones and deep, rich blacks. Sarmiento’s The sound is even more impressive. The big sound moments, with pumping music or guttural screams, really fill the room. The disc really shines in the ambient background sounds of any given scene. I had to hit pause once or twice to make sure these mood-setters were coming from the movie and not from inside my house.

The highlight of the bonus features is the commentary, where each director stops by to talk on his or her segment. There’s a lot of interesting chatter here, but the most fascinating is Spasojevic. Instead of a usual commentary, he instead offers first person narration from the point of view of his protagonist. This makes the commentary an integral part of the movie’s story, and I love that kind of outside-the-box thinking. From there, we get a lengthy collection of behind-the-scenes featurettes, divided up for each short. These include interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and special effects demos. There’s also an AXS TV featurette looking at the film as a whole. Some trailers conclude the package.

The ABCs of Death is an experiment. It’s not entirely successful, but experiments are good…something we don’t see much of in film these days. Horror fans should watch this one once, just because of how different it is, but I doubt this will become a standard that everyone will take off the shelf every October.

The Verdict

“M” is for middle-of-the-road.

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