The ABCs of Death – the alphabet they don’t teach you in school…

The ABCs of Death is a truly ambitious film idea if ever there was one. The premise is simple: 26 directors were each given a letter of the alphabet around which to create a short film about the subject of death. They were allowed complete artistic freedom to do whatever they liked and to interpret the letter as they saw fit. These 26 shorts then make up the finished 2 hour film. However there is sometimes a common problem that surrounds anthology films of this kind. Not all the pieces can fit together, often making for a disjointed and tenuous watch. Does The ABCs of Death manage to avoid this pitfall and turn an ingenious idea into an entertaining film? Or is this an experiment gone wrong?

For the purpose of this review, I won’t reveal any of the story titles or what the letters stand for in each short. I won’t even state which director had which letter to make a film around. The reason for this is simple: the whole appeal of watching The ABCs of Death in the first place is in trying to guess how each short will pan out before the pay-off is revealed. This is definitely a film that it is best to go into with no prior knowledge and therefore I will respect this by keeping my review spoiler-free.

Indeed there is no way to guess the titles or subject matters of each of the shorts beforehand, each director having chosen much more bizarre and unusual ideas than you would think (apart from a few minor lazy ones from directors Ti West and Jon Schnepp – but these are the only exceptions). The scope of the individual films themselves range from the truly poignant to the insanely bizarre. Some are straightforward dramas, some are flat-out scare fests and there are even a couple of animations. However almost all of the shorts carry some sort of humour along the way, either of the laugh-out-loud kind (such as the outlandish animated entries) or the darker, twisted humour used in some that provokes nervous laughter from the audience.

Although most of the shorts are funny though, ‘fun’ would be the wrong word to describe this film as a whole. It is often a very hard watch, whether because the subject matter onscreen is too gruesome or because the short itself is too cringeworthy. Some entries are in fact downright sickening (in particular Timo Tjahjanto’s entry). Therefore the entire film seems more like an endurance test than a joyful watch. As well as this nearly all of the films use graphic gore throughout to more than shocking effect. If you’re the sort of person who can’t stand gore, or horror at all for that matter, then it would be best to avoid this for obvious reasons.

But do these shorts work well as a whole film? Well, yes and no. One problem that often happens with these sort of portmanteau films is that they can feel rather disjointed as you jump from story to story. And this is where The ABCs of Death fails to deliver. There is obviously a tenuous link between all the narratives around the subject of death, and also to an extent sex which bizarrely seems to feature in most of the stories (I guess the two are more closely related than we think). This does make the film for most of the duration feel slightly less fragmented. However as a whole the film just doesn’t work, mostly because the standard for all of the shorts isn’t consistent. There are some that are completely throw away because of a boring story or no sort of significance or message behind it, and there are some that are downright laughably awful. This pulls the standard of the film down, some actually making you visibly cringe as you watch. Therefore The ABCs of Death is one of those sorts of films that you will watch once, intrigued to see how each short will unfold as you try to guess what will happen and what the letter will stand for. But when you’ve seen it once, you’ll never revisit.

At the most the only way you would ever possibly see this film again is by watching just the ones that stood out from the crowd on your first viewing. Indeed there are a couple of true gems hidden amongst the rubbish that are brilliantly executed shorts and that deserve a mention. Ben Wheatley’s film is slickly directed, mysterious and terrifying, even though it’s barely a minute long. Marcel Sarmiento’s is again beautifully directed and incredibly clever, delivering a nuanced plot in just a couple of minutes and with no dialogue at all. Adam Wingard’s is hilarious and cleverly satires the other horrors in the film itself. Xavier Gens is thought-provoking and intense as are both Jorge Michel Grau’s and Jake West’s entries. And Lee Hardcastle’s is another funny and bizarre take on a seemingly normal, everyday issue. These are the films that keep you watching The ABCs of Death. But at the end of the day, these are just a couple of shorts in an incredibly long film that’s made up of many, many more misses than hits.

The ABCs of Death is worth a one-time watch, just to see how truly weird the end results are. If you’re a horror fan this also delivers big on intense gore and nasty moments. But when you’ve seen it once you can’t imagine ever having a repeated viewing – not only because the mystery of the idea is gone, but mostly because you wouldn’t want to watch something that contains more tripe than treasure. And it’s not exactly something that even makes for an enjoyable first time viewing, most of the films being hard to endure either because of the intense subject matter or because they’re so awful. This lack of consistency in the quality makes the overall film feel fragmented, the bad entries stopping your involvement in the film and making you pray for a quick ending…to the film that is. Another film that seems to have been a perfect idea in theory, but that ends up being H for Horribly executed.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on May 3, 2013.

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