I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of The ABCs of Death since I first heard about it, around the time I was gearing up and getting excited for V/H/S. Good anthology films are hard to find these days, despite the long line of classics released all through the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. A handful of horror anthologies dribbled out through the Nineties, but except for the surprisingly enjoyable Tales from the Hood (1995), none really built on the heights of the classics (although I am fond of Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993) and would love to see it again if I could get my hands on a copy).
Over the last decade or so, the horror anthology banner has been taken up by the 3 Extremes series, highlighting horror filmmakers from Asia, although there was also 2007's Trick 'r Treat that stands up quite nicely. Other recent anthologies that have been released haven't really been up to snuff (I may be forgetting something – please remind me in the comments!).
But now Magnet Releasing (who have been responsible for getting films like [REC]2 and [REC]3: Genesis, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Big Man Japan, Black Death, Hobo with a Shotgun, House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, I Saw the Devil, Let the Right One In, Monsters, Severance, Timecrimes, Trollhunter, and more recently, John Dies at the End and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning in front of a viewing public) has stepped into the ring; first with last year's very satisfying V/H/S and now what may be the most ambitious horror anthology film ever put together. The ABCs of Death is 26 short films from 26 directors from around the world. They were each given a letter from the alphabet, $5000, and free rein to make a short film about a form of death inspired by their assigned letter.
And I am very satisfied with what they've delivered.
As with all anthologies, some entries are hit or miss, but some of these entries are downright brilliant. There's straight up horror, comedy, animation, and a few things that are simply indefinable. Plus, later this year, distributor Magnolia Pictures (Magnet's parent company) will release the sequel to V/H/S, S-VHS (with an AMAZING line-up of directors) and the end credits of ABCs promises More ABCs of Death in 2014.
It's a good time to be a horror fan, for sure. Even if you don't know who the writers and directors are in this anthology, you should find something that takes your fancy. We've included lists of previous films by each director in case you want to go load up your Netflix queue.
I know I did. -Paul Brian McCoy
A is for Apocalypse by Nacho Vigalondo
Spain – Timecrimes (2007), Extraterrestrial (2011)
The ABCs of Death gets off to a fine start with this instalment by Nacho Vigalondo, which sets the stage for all that is to come and establishes the format for the rest of the film.
We are immediately thrust into a strange situation (oddly reminiscent if you've seen Extraterrestrial) as a silent man sits bedridden and vacant-eyed. We hear noises in the kitchen, and then without any real warning a woman quietly enters the room, raises a knife, and tries to murder the man (there was no murder attempt in Extraterrestrial).
It's awkward and clumsy and a little bit funny. Until she slices one of his hands nearly in half. The shock of that sudden burst of gore – not quick gore either, as we see his dangly half-hand for the rest of the piece – followed by the knife being planted in his neck makes you sit up and take notice.
What she does next is even more shocking, sending a full-body shudder through this reviewer. But it's how Vigalondo ends the piece that really makes it work and brings home just what sort of experience this film is going to be. It's startling and touching at the same time. It's bloody and imaginative. It's the end of the world and the time to wrap up the things we've been putting off.
I loved it. This is a fine addition to Vigalondo's oeuvre, maintaining his consistent approach of starting stories quietly, then quickly building to chaos before bringing it all together in the end masterfully.
B is for Bigfoot by Adrian Garcia Bogliano
Spain – I'll Never Die Alone (2008), Cold Sweat (2010)
Kids' stories are often nasty, brutish th
ings. They're meant to impart a kind of wisdom and most of the time that wisdom is: don't trust authority/adults/anyone who isn't you. And almost as frequently, that wisdom reveals itself in a kind of vicious comeuppance, where either the kids or outside forces breakdown those adults and the kids are left alone and scared but stronger and wiser.
Adrian Garcia Bogliano's contribution to this anthology falls squarely along those lines, while also integrating a plethora of horror tropes– horny teenagers neglecting their responsibilities, sex as death, hulking masses of morality invading domestic abodes– all to great effect, regardless of how cliche those tropes are or aren't. The basics of the story Bogliano depicts are that a kid doesn't want to go to bed, even though by refusing to do so she's getting in the way of her cousin getting some action. So the cousin and his lady friend concoct what is first a pretty silly monster story about an "abominable snowman" but soon morphs into a fairly terrifying tale about a deal between the authorities and this snowman that involves sacrificing naughty children who get out of their beds.
There winds up being an inadvertent lesson for the little girl, or a couple of them, to be more precise. When her cousin lets in what seems to be a physical manifestation of the snowman, and all hell breaks loose. It's at this point that the kids' story goes horrible, with a gritty realism that isn't often seen in more "fantastical" works like this. It's a beautifully horrifying juxtaposition, of innocence lost and experience gained, and it makes quite the one-two punch when paired with "A is for Apocalypse."
C is for Cycle by Ernesto Díaz Espinoza
Chile – Mandrill (2009)
I'm a sucker for a good time travel paradox. And with "C is for Cycle", Espinoza demonstrates a playful, and ultimately deadly, determination to play with looping time in a way I found strangely reminiscent of both Nacho Vigalondo's brilliant Timecrimes and Christopher Smith's equally brilliant Triangle (2009). However, as would be expected with the strict budgetary and time limitations imposed by the producers, Espinoza's brief, murderous tale falls short. But the germ of a great film is in there.
A little more time to let the reality of the situation breathe would have done wonders. As it is, "C is for Cycle" feels more like a sequence in a larger tale. It's a tightly plotted sequence, for sure, as Bruno discovers a strange gap in the bushes lining his yard – a gap that is a hole in time.
By opening focused on a pool of blood in the yard, we immediately know something bad is going on, and when Alicia wakes Bruno because she hears something in the living room that night, we expect the worst. But there's nothing there. Or so we thought. Before we know it, the next day begins and the strangeness takes hold in a very Back to the Future 2 kind of way.
As with the best films to play around with looping time like this, by the end of the piece we discover that we don't know where the story began and simultaneously realize that it may never end. And that, my friends, is the sign of a good time travel film.
D is for Dogfight by Marcel Sarmiento
USA – Deadgirl (2008)
I can't even begin to tell you how much I fucking hated Deadgirl, Marcel Sarmiento's last directorial effort. I found it to be trashy in the worst sense of the word, full of a brutal kind of misogyny that asked you to root for a guy whose greatest trait is that he was too timid to rape the titular Deadgirl but was totally cool watching his friend have a go and only slightly less cool watching his friend then charge others to do the same. The film involved someone's penis getting bitten off and its twist was that the "hero" let his love interest get zombified because that made her more likely to be his girlfriend. I am not making this up.
So I was beyond shocked to discover that "D is for Dogfight" was from the same director. At some point in the last four years, Sarmiento learned about subtlety and art and he puts both to excellent use in "Dogfight," which is a tricky, visually stunning short about the nature of fighting and violence. Whereas a lot of the blame for Deadgirl could feasibly be laid at the feet of its screenwriter, "Dogfight" is deservedly Sarmiento's accomplishment, as it succeeds by virtue of his uncanny direction. Sarmiento works in plenty of visual cleverness but ultimately what makes the short work is the impeccably executed vision he displays, particularly in the choreography in the battle between man and beast that we are initially conned into thinking is the horror.
Even without its twist coda, "Dogfight" would be one of the most impressive works in the anthology, but through that closing message Sarmiento truly delivers on the promise of the title and the set-up. If this is the level of talent Sarmiento has been hiding, then that makes Deadgirl all the more disappointing and depressing, but at least it also means we may soon see a truly great work from this director.
E is for Exterminate by Angela Bettis
USA – Roman (2002)
Angela Bettis' short film is based on the short story "The Spider and the Man" by Brent Hanley (the screenwriter of the classic Frailty) and is fairly predictable. There are a few cute moments of almost slapstick humor and Bettis plays with the vis
uals and sound to draw out more comedy than is really there.
Ultimately, however, "E is for Exterminate" is a one-trick pony – and it's a trick that's been done elsewhere far more effectively (in the sort-of-classic 1987 Voodoo horror film The Believers, with Martin Sheen, to name just one).
If there's something to be gained in this piece, it's in the silent observation of the spider as the human involved goes through his empty life. He's kind of pathetic and we can almost feel the spider judging him as he watches.
Or maybe I'm just looking for something that isn't there.
F is for Fart ("Young Ladies and Poison Gas") by Noboru Iguchi
Japan – The Machine Girl (2008), RoboGeisha (2009), Mutant Girls Squad (2010), Karate-Robo Zaborgar (2011), Tomie: Unlimited (2011), Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead (2011)
It might seem cliche to say it, but ABCs of Death truly does have something for everyone, even someone who has long desired to die by fart. Or who fetishizes death by farting, at least.
Noboru Iguchi's entry, "F is for Fart," is a ridiculously juvenile joke of a short but what's weirdest about it isn't the toxic flatulence but the artistry that he brings to this mostly pointless entry. It's a shame that Iguchi wastes that artistry on such a blunt, noxious gag, but it's not that surprising given one of his prior credits is the self-explanatory Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead and that Japanese culture on the whole has a weird thing about butts anyway (seriously, one phenomenally popular game kids play involves them poking each other in the butthole).
I'm all for breaking down taboos and making a joke about the way we try to restrain our sexual impulses and desires, but this short is merely an elementary school goof going back and forth forever.
G is for Gravity by Andrew Traucki
Australia – Black Water (2007), The Reef (2010)
This first person short follows a fellow as he parks, gets his gear from the trunk, swims out into the ocean, and drowns himself. That's really all there is to it. It is the least effective short in the anthology and one can only wonder where the five thousand dollar budget went.
The scenery is beautiful but there's no attempt to create any type of subtext, context, or to even tell a story. As soon as he begins loading bricks into his bag and grabs his board, you know how this one is going to end, barring any surprises.
There are no surprises.
H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion by Thomas Cappelen Malling
Norway – Norwegian Ninja (2010)
My first thought when Thomas Cappelen Malling's "H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion" began was "Holy shit, someone turned Spike Jonze's 'Da Funk' video into a sci-fi action adventure," and that's not a bad thing at all. That first instinct might be a bit reductve, since there's quite a bit more detail and bold ideas in Malling's short, but it captures the gist of this propulsively rhythmic and musical entry.
Stylishly vintage and expertly choreographed, Malling's short is also that age old tale of cats and dogs quarreling, with some Tex Avery-like sexual shenanigans and body elasticity. Except in a move perhaps lifted from Maus, the dogs represent the Allies, while the cat in question is a Nazi seductress in possession of some mad cap torture machine that acts as the centerpiece for her burlesque show. The short isn't as heady as some of the better entries in the anthology, but it's fun and provides an excellent lift after a preceding run of three highly disappointing shorts and also serves as a great break before the sobering entry that proceeds it.
I is for Ingrown by Jorge Michel Grau
Mexico – We Are What We Are (2010)
"2015 women murdered in the last 10 years in Mexico – 200 women a month – The horror is not on the screen"
Those words accompany Jorge Michel Grau's credit sequence at the end of the film, and even without drawing the explicit connection with what goes on every day in Mexico, Grau has crafted what is the most disturbing and frightening entry in The ABCs of Death.
It is a simple scene, a bathroom, a man wearing a rubber glove and holding a syringe. In his other hand is a plastic bottle of what appears to be drain cleaner of some kind. We linger on his wedding ring. The man is anxious and angry. He makes his move, rising, and opens the curtains pulled around the tub.
A woman is tied to the tub, clearly abused and frightened. The man injects her and leaves, unable to watch as she slowly, brutally dies twitching, vomiting, a
nd scratching herself bloody.
Her voiceover is the truly haunting part as she first loses her identity and then her life. We focus on her wedding ring.
That this isn't some fantastical horror piece, some high-concept freak-out, is what makes it stand out from the other shorts in the anthology and really allows Grau to make an impact on the viewer. The number of murders quoted is appalling, and at the same time almost unbelievable. Watching a realistic murder, one that is petty and angry, developing from jealousy and hostility, helps to ground the film and really demonstrate what can be accomplished with a creative experiment like this.
J is for Jidai-Geki (samurai movie) by Yudai Yamaguchi
Japan – Battlefield Baseball (2003), Meatball Machine (2005)
Yudai Yamaguchi's Battlefield Baseball is one of my favorite goofy gore films, and a large part of what makes it so effective is that it both takes itself extremely seriously and doesn't take itself seriously in the slightest. If that sounds like a paradox, that's because it is, but that's how Yamaguchi works. "J is for Jidai-Geki," which is a term for samurai movie, is like a condensed version of Yamaguchi's aesthetic, where the super serious samurai staple of hara-kiri is upended by a kaishakunin– the assistant who traditionally decapitated those committing sepuku for honorable reasons.
Because hara-kiri is such an intense ritual and the role of kaishakunin is particularly stressful, the goofiness of Yamaguchi's short isn't so unreal; the part of the kaishakunin was a notoriously tough one, as there was a lot of pressure on the kaishakunin to perform the decapitation just right. Making a mistake would besmirch one's honor and ruin the whole process, and pulling it off less than perfectly could be just as bad. Chances are samurai didn't contort their faces into Tex Avery positions during it, but it's not that difficult to imagine a kaishakunin viewing the horrific grimaces of pain as something silly. I imagine horror directors often feel the same way.
Even with all that context and metaness, though, "J is for Jidai-Geki" isn't necessarily a stand out. It's an interesting diversion and it comes dangerously close to overstaying its welcome. But that's likely as much a testament to the excellent selection of ABCs of Death as it is a criticism of this short.
K is for Klutz by Anders Morgenthaler
Denmark – Princess (2006)
I have it on good authority from a number of women I know that Ladies Rooms are foul and disgusting places. The number of horror stories I have heard about shit on walls and toilet seats, piss on floors, and other disgusting things being where they have no place being, would boggle your mind.
In "K is for Klutz" I finally have an idea as to why poop could end up on the ceiling.
This animated short is cute, clever, and very professional. It may not have a lot to say about society (or does it?), but it is amusing and has a beginning, middle, and an end (which is more than I can say for a couple of these entries).
And the squeak that the turd makes whenever it bounces is just delightful.
The end, on the other hand, goes from amusingly clever to downright horrific.
This isn't the only instalment in The ABCs of Death to feature a toilet prominently, and it's not the only to be preoccupied with gastric anxieties, but it is the most adorable.
L is for Libido by Timo Tjahjanto
Indonesia – Macabre (as one of the Mo Brothers, 2009)
There are two shorts in ABCs of Death that tackle pedophilia, a subject that even the boldest of horror directors normally shy away from. Of the two, "L is for Libido" is the more subtle and philosophical, asking how much control we have over our sexual urges and how capable we are of flexing that control when the stakes are truly raised.
Starting as a Takashi Miike-like sexual mindfuck, "L is for Libido" has a group of captive men competing in a decidedly bizarre game for the enjoyment of mysterious people in masks. The goal of the game is to reach orgasm first and winning means you get to live. But each time you win, you're forced to masturbate to an odder and less appetizing sexual scenario, with the implication that after a certain point, living might not be such a reward.
There are some fantastic effects in the short that recall Cannibal Holocaust and similar films of that ilk, but the real horror comes in the realness of the world director Timo Tjahjanto presents. Which makes the final ending a bit of a drag, as it disrupts that calculated meticulousness with an unnecessarily aggressive kill. Even with that misstep, though, "L is for Libido" is an intense and profoundly disturbing work.
M is for Miscarriage by Ti West
USA – House of the Dead (2009), The Innkeepers (2011), V/H/S: "Second Honeymoon" (2012)
Ti West is one of my favorite young filmmakers, as shown by his inclusion in my New Year's Top Five Directors to Watch list. I've seen every film he's made, even the one he doesn't want to admit he made, and if there's one consistent thing about them, it's that they are confidently paced with a fantastic pay-off at the end.
Unfortunately, "M is for Miscarriage" doesn't live up to the expectations I had. It is more of a simple scene than a short film, which is understandable given the restrictions imposed on the filmmakers here. But as he had free rein to do whatever he wanted, this is a little disappointing.
What begins as another possible exploration of toilet anxiety (there are at least four or five entries that involve toilets in one way or another), swiftly turns into, well, nothing really. A cute, hipster girl seems to have clogged the toilet, runs to get a plunger, and then we see that the toilet is clogged with her miscarriage.
It's not graphic, really, as the miscarriage looks like nothing identifiable. It's not emotional, really, as the girl seems more puzzled than horrified or shocked. It's just not much of anything, really. In the end, this piece just kind of sits there doing nothing while we watch confused, like the titular miscarriage.
The girl is cute and her apartment looks nice. I wish there had been more to it.
N is for Nuptials by Banjong Pisanthanakun written by Banjong & Nontra Khumvong
Thailand – Shutter (2004), Alone (2007)
If Woody Allen decided to make a horror sequel to Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, Banjong Pisanthanakun's "N is for Nuptials" would be a perfect fit.
"Nuptials" is a light, single joke short that starts sweet and maudling and arrives at a pretty obvious, mostly boring "shock" conclusion. The only thing that stands out about it, really, is that it's a Thai film, but that's mostly noticeable for how odd it is that the film looks and behaves like an unremarkable Hollywood-lite work. But just like marriages, with horror anthologies you have to take the good with the bad.
France – Amer (2009)
This was the most difficult review to write of the bunch. Not because it was so bad or so great, but because it is one of the most abstract. Sticking to the imagery and stylizations that they are most comfortable with, Cattet and Forzani produce a beautiful little piece of work that is both erotic and unnerving.
Their love for giallo comes through clearly – as does their affection for leather gloves and erotica. "O is for Orgasm" seduces the viewer with glimpses of dangerous fantasies, fellatio and bubbles.
Yeah, just go with it.
The images jump back and forth with an alternating primary color scheme with the bubbles apparently representing sexual fantasies billowing up from a woman being pleasured by a barely seen man. The bubbles pop and snap the woman back to reality for moments that swiftly slide back into fantasy.
Then the creaky leather strap is brought out and we get a notion of how death will arrive.
The use of sound, music, lighting, and strange imagery reminded me a lot of Panos Cosmatos' Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010), but is actually a natural continuation of the visual work Cattet and Forzani did in Amer and are carrying on with their next film, The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears.
It was very well put-together and stands out as one of the most beautiful pieces in the anthology.
P is for Pressure by Simon Rumley – UK
The Living and the Dead (2006), Red White & Blue (2010)
Like "I is for Ingrown" before it, "P is for Pressure" finds its horror not necessarily in a specific act or fantastic monster but in the misery of a situation and a system with far too many built in disadvantages for entire groups of people. Simon Rumley uses his short to focus on the hardships of a young woman trying to take care of her family, who resorts to turning tricks to buy birthday presents, only to have all of the birthday money stolen. This prompts her to take what she realizes is an extreme job, but one which at least pays extremely well. You can fill in the rest.
As a short, "P is for Pressure" isn't quite as evocative as "I is for Ingrown," but if it were extended to feature length, it could make for a devastating narrative, particularly since Rumley does an excellent job establishing all the necessary details of his main character without making it feel too cliche, instead leaning on iconography and setting to fill in the voids the script doesn't.
Make no mistake, this is a bold, assertive work full of intelligence and heart, but it feels like a tease of
a major work rather than a standalone piece. Here's hoping Rumley builds on it in some way, especally since stories of this nature– or at least brave, well-crafted stories of this nature– are so few and far between.
Q is for Quack by Adam Wingard – written by Simon Barrett – story by Keith Calder
USA – A Horrible Way to Die (2010), You're Next (2011), V/H/S: "Tape 56" (2012)
Most critics are either aware of or have utilized the "I don't know what to write– so I'm gonna write about not knowing what to write" review before. Most of the time it's lazy and stupid, a way of communicating how little a subject means to you. If you're Pitchfork, you do it once a month and cackle loudly as the internet explodes in rage.
Adam Wingard's ABCs of Death is pretty much this trick in film form, a ridiculously disappointing entry in the anthology that insults its audience by being so poorly thought out, executed and scripted that it almost begs for a meta interpretation in which one argues that that was its point, to make you want to kill the filmmakers for wasting your time.
But I'm not interested in that kind of criticism, so fuck this short.
R is for Removed by Srdjan Spasojevic
written by Spasojevic & Dimitrije Vojnov – Serbia, Yugoslavia – A Serbian Film (2010)
If you watched Spasojevic's A Serbian Film, you know that the man pulls no punches and takes no prisoners (which is why he made my list of Top Five Directors to Watch). You also know he has a lot to say about the state of filmmaking in Serbia. "R is for Removed" is another strong metaphor for the handling of filmmakers by the studios and money men, as our nameless, faceless protagonist is chained to a hospital bed and the doctor peels hideous growths from him that are then turned into film.
He is occasionally wheeled out for the masses to fawn over and praise, but then it's back to the hospital bed where his "creative output" is managed and filtered out by the Powers That Be. There's a lot of Cronenberg influence at work here and you can't help but root for the hideous creature as he makes his brutal (face full of filth-filled bedpan, anyone?) and bloody escape.
The metaphorical ending as the creature/filmmaker staggers to an abandoned rail yard and manually pushes a train out of its station is a little exaggerated, but Spasojevic has heart and makes it work as an almost Frankenstein-level of tragic sacrifice.
S is for Speed by Jake West
UK – Razor Blade Smile (1998), Evil Aliens (2005), Doghouse (2009)
Doghouse was a pretty entertaining film, if you could get past the casual misogyny. West has a pretty firm handle on action based on what he did with that film, but from what I understand, "S is for Speed" is more in line with his earlier works, Razor Blade Smile and Evil Aliens.
We've got two Hot Chicks in leather with a Creepy Monster chasing them through the desert. Hot Chick Number One is in charge and Hot Chick Number Two is her prisoner. They barrel through the desert in a Bad-Ass Car after Hot Chick Number One uses a CGI flame-thrower to stall the Creepy Monster.
But you can't outrun death, they learn. It's all very stylized and inventive, reminding me of Dead Hooker in a Trunk by the Soska Sisters – especially the dialogue and the focus on two Hot Chicks.
Once we find out what's really going on, I can't decide if it's clever or clever-clever. When all was said and done, I was disappointed, but could see some viewers digging it. Like a gritty little Wizard of Oz. On speed.
T is for Toilet by Lee Hardcastle
UK – Done in 60 Seconds. With Clay (TV series, 2010-2012) – won competition to win the 26th director spot
I've been an avid Spike & Mike devotee for years and it's fitting that a couple films in ABCs of Death would fit in well in that anthology series/travelling festival/whatever, namely "K is for Klutz" and "T is for Toilet." Of those two, "T is for Toilet," is the better work, situated in the children's story tradition of "B is for Bigfoot" with its message that sometimes kids have a right to be scared, albeit in a more humorous and less artful manner.
Because bathrooms are by nature humiliating, disgusting places, they're bound to pop up in horror films pretty frequently. But as far as I know, "T is for Toilet" is unique in making its focus potty training, and the horrors of growing up that it represents. Granted, most potty training situations don't go the way this one does.
"T is for Toi
let" gets pretty ugly pretty quickly, but in the process it gets some sharp visual gags in and displays a kineticism that few of the other films in ABCs of Death can match. It's not deep or profound by any means, but it's effective and gets the job done, utilizing its claymation style well enough to make you really feel the violence.
U is for Unearthed by Ben Wheatley – written by Wheatley & Andy Starke
UK – Down Terrace (2009), Kill List (2010), Sightseers (2012), A Field in England (2013)
Ben Wheatley made my list of Top Five Contemporary UK Horror Directors back during the New Year's run-up on just the strength of his first two features, Down Terrace and Kill List. Since then, he's also released Sightseers to great subversive acclaim and all the news about A Field in England sounds fantastic.
With "U is for Unearthed", Wheatley reunites with Kill List stars Neil Maskell (also of the genius new Channel 4 series Utopia) and Michael Smiley (who you may remember as Tyres on Spaced) and Down Terrace star Robin Hill to give us a brief, but story-packed installment about vampire hunters – from the first-person perspective of the newly unearthed vampire.
The first-person perspective reminded me of the shorts from another recent anthology, V/H/S, and as such, it kind of stands out here with only Andrew Traucki's "G is for Gravity" opting to go the same route, but neither piece chose to go with the "found footage" approach, which freshens the take.
Especially as "U is for Unearthed" ends with a beheading from the vampire's perspective and the comforting words of Maskell, promising that the creature's children will never know this ended. With just those few lines, Wheatley and co-writer Andy Starke (the producer on all of Wheatley's films so far) allow us to unpack the narrative on our own and have crafted my favorite piece in the anthology.
V is for Vagitus (the cry of a newborn baby) by Kaare Andrews
Canada – Altitude (2010) – comic artist Spider-Man: Reign, Incredible Hulk covers
Kaare Andrews' "V is for Vagitus" is perhaps the sleekest and most futuristic of the ABCs of Death shorts, rooted in a Blade Runner-esque hard sci-fi, where mutant humans with mental abilities are hunted by 2000 A.D.-like cops, Robocop machiantions and sinister government officials. In a short span of time, Andrews magnificently sets up a whole universe of possibilities that also stands entirely on its own.
The central dilemma of "V is for Vagitus" is what to do about a potentially dangerous infant with untold powers. Andrews greets that dilemma in a hyper-violent fashion, tying it into similar questions about collateral damage and biological human growth versus technological human growth. There's also a tidy sidestory about sacrifice and desire wrapped up in there and it's to Andrews' credit that the short never feels overstuffed or ungainly, which is perhaps a result of his time in comics.
Andrews' unique comic art style isn't visible here, as he has instead traded it in for an extremely efficient and streamlined computerized feel that recalls the near-future segment of Cloud Atlas. But that's not a criticism, as a short from Andrews that utilized his scratchy comic-style art wouldn't have stood out as much. If Andrews can bring this kind of sensisibility to a major motion picture, we might just be seeing a future blockbuster.
W is for WTF! by Jon Schnepp
USA – The Venture Brothers (2010), Metalocalypse (2009-2012)
Most people would probably say this is one you're either going to love or hate, but I disagree. Schnepp's film is most comparable to the work of Yoshihiro Nishimura (more on him when we get to the letter Z), but without his focus. Because of that, I wanted to love it, veered toward hating it, but ended up kind of in the middle about it.
If you've ever watched one of the bizarrely awesome music videos of Deathklok then you'll have a small insight into what we're given here – only in live-action and animation. This is only the second of the segments to entertainingly address the actual process the contributors went through to make their shorts ("Q is for Quack" is the other), as we see Schnepp pitching idea after idea, each crazier than the one before.
Then, in a brilliant move, those ideas and others start coming to life as the entire piece goes completely off the rails. A giant walrus, zombie clowns, a warrior woman, a weird, flying, face-eating baby, and other nightmares explode on the screen as a newscaster is possessed (???) and begins ranting apocalyptically.
In the end, this one turns out to be a little too much to take in and lacks a central idea that would pull it all together. By choosing "WTF" as his "W", Sch
nepp let loose with every batshit crazy idea he could throw at the screen (and produce on the cheap) and I commend him for that.
I just wish it had amounted to something. Anything, really.
X is for XXL by Xavier Gens
France – Frontier(s) (2007), Hitman (2007), The Divide (2011)
This was one of the tougher shorts for me to make up my mind about. Visually, it's excellent, with a terrifying but well-executed aesthetic, tons of necessary gore and a thrilling lead performance. But thematically, it's often difficult to tell whee Xavier Gens' sympathies lie, as his "message" short about body image sometimes inartfully waddles across the line between offering something new and visceral in the debate about self-worth and inadvertently adding further offense.
Admittedly, Gens' prior films make me more likely to question his intentions, particularly the ridiculously stupid video game adaptation Hitman. But ignoring that, "X is for XXL" is one of the more visually satisfying shorts in the collection. Gens seems to accomplish most of the transformation of his lead character– who begins performing cosmetic surgery on herself– with practical effects, which adds to the realism and is especially notable given the anthology setting and the limited resources available. It's also a natural fit for the short format, since it has a quick, simple concept and is efficient in its execution.
All in all, it may be a bit heavy handed and its intentions may be dubious, but there's no denying that "X is for XXL" accomplishes its mission of making one feel disgusting for putting thinness on a social pedestal.
Y is for Youngbuck by Jason Eisener
Canada – "Treevenge" (short 2008), Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)
Of all the films in The ABCs of Death, Jason Eisener's "Y is for Youngbuck" might have creeped me out the most. That's half because of the subject matter– a grotesque pedophile getting his comeuppance– and half because of the super color saturated style Eisener uses, which he also showed off in Hobo with a Shotgun. That saturation, which forces the colors to pop unnaturally and makes his human actors seems entirely unreal, was exciting in Hobo with a Shotgun but here it's entiely terrifying, causing details like the pedophile's skinny pasty sore covered legs and sinewy, fish-like gaping mouth to explode on the screen as much as the blood and effects do.
For whatever reason, it reminds of Eric Wareheim's classic "We Are Water" video for HEALTH, which likewise featured a similar woodsy setting and in its suburban school moments it brought to mind Hard Candy. Both films utilize bold, striking colors and a strong theme of revenge, but Hard Candy is somehow more palatable, which makes "We Are Water" perhaps a better fit, especially given its ending (just watch it, it's worth it).
"Y is for Youngbuck" is painful to watch and it's sickening and I hated every second of it…but that's what it's meant to do, and for that reason, it stands out as one of the most unique and accomplished works in the collection.
Z is for Zetsumetsu (Extinction) by Yoshihiro Nishimura
Japan – Tokyo Gore Police (2008), Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (2009), Mutant Girls Squad (2010), Helldriver (2010)
What can be said about the work of Nishimura that can't be summed up with "fucking insane"? The special effects legend and frequent creative collaborator with ABCs of Death fellow contributor Noboru Iguchi ("F is for Fart"), rounds out the alphabet with what is perhaps the most fucking insane short in the group.
We've got Nazis, a Japanese Doctor Strangelove, nuclear anxieties, a mutant populace, lots of rice and sushi, as well as a handful of naked people and a final battle between a nude, severely scarred woman and another nude Neo-Nazi woman armed with a giant penis sword.
Yes. A giant penis sword.
It is like the craziest schizophrenic ranting you can imagine with soft-core porn video accompaniment.
In other words, it's kind of a work of genius. It is exactly the sort of no-holds-barred filmmaking I was hoping to see more of in this anthology. When you give a director $5000 and free rein to do whatever they want, this is the sort of thing there should be more of.
It doesn't matter if it makes sense or not. It doesn't matter if it is offensive or not. The only thing that matters is that we get to see a director's imagination unleashed with no restrictions. I wish more of these entries had been pure Id on the screen.
Nick Hanover doesn't want to set the world on fire, unless he has to, which seems increasingly more likely each day. As Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, he most looks forward to making subliterate internet commenters angry and forcing his record collection on unsuspecting readers through his comic, film and television reviews and miscellaneous other pop culture pieces for the site. He promises to update Panel Panopticon more this year, but you can a
lways find his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover or explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now forKindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.