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ABCs of Death, The

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Monster Pictures
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Directed by: 
Bottom Line: 
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 Take twenty-six of the hottest contemporary directors from right across the globe currently working in the horror and fantasy genres today (you can include one or two also rans and never heard ofs as well), assign them a single letter of the alphabet and provide between two and six minutes of screen time for each to come up with an original short film on the subject of death … That’s the somewhat random premise behind this inevitably rather schizophrenic anthology experiment from the producers of “The ABCs of Death”, Tim League and Ant Timpson. Some might call this collaborative project insanely ambitious: it stands or falls on a number of factors, none of which are in the full control of either the producers or the many filmmakers brought together on this unpredictable quick-fire ride through the current horror scene. For one thing, none of the directors taking part knew what anybody else would be doing in their segment of the anthology before starting work, and the sheer numbers involved means that, while the film has a ponderous running time in excess of two hours, no one single mood or theme is able to establish itself before we’re swiftly moved along to the next random selection. Watched straight through in its entirety it is hard to avoid a feeling of being served up one random but insubstantial course after another, with none of the dishes adding up to a meal that’s entirely nutritious or really all that filling, despite the amount you’ve consumed by the end of it.

Running order and juxtaposition plays an essential role in how one receives the end product  when this much diverse material is in play and s being combined from different sources, and from listening to the comments of some of the twenty-six or more participants who take part in what must be the most heavily-populated commentary track ever recorded, it’s clear that second guessing what their fellow filmmakers might be doing in their films heavily influenced how some of the participants approached their own efforts, and not always with the best of results. Poor old Ti West (“House of the Devil; “The Innkeepers”) probably presumed he was being brutally terse and direct with the misbegotten  quickie “Miscarriage”, one of the shortest and simplest of the films here, but also the most pointless; this shallow and unimaginative attempt to be provocative (which plays rather like an anecdotal urban legend brought to film, an approach which is also adopted to better comic effect by Thailand’s  Banjong Pisanthanakun in the amusingly silly “Nuptials”) has the misfortune of following Timo Tjahjanto’s lone Indonesian entry  “Libido” -- a flamboyantly nasty and tasteless exercise in grabbing audience attention through outrageous imagery and taboo subject matter, in this case involving male prisoners chained to their seats and forced to take part in masturbation competitions for a  sect of masked spectators,  who observe their efforts from the surrounding balconies of a plush hall. The loser in each round is impaled through the anus with a wooden stake … so, no pressure to perform there, then! One contestant finds the knack and does rather well, progressing through the endless rounds by focusing all his erotic ‘attentions’ on the rather fetching female adjudicator presiding over the proceedings, instead of the outré sights provided by his captors. But when she is replaced by an obese, stern-faced male and the live action ‘wanking material’ starts to become progressively grimmer and grimmer (an emaciated amputee frigging herself off with her own artificial leg, anyone? … thought not!) the task of survival is made progressively more abject until it results in him having to face off against a slimy-looking paedophile while being forced to find some kind of erotic value in the sight of an old man having live sex with a little boy!

The above represents just one approach, used by several of the directors, to try and make each entry in this horrorthon relay race stand out from the crowd, in this case with provocative and consciously unpleasant material. Consequently, there are several segments based around the use of overt sexual explicitness or taboo subject-matter such as paedophilia or animal abuse. West’s throwaway effort rather pales in comparison to these others, and one of the things noticeable about the film as a whole is how disappointing the entries of the big name US and UK directors generally are in comparison to those of other participating countries. Still, the shock approach works best when the director involved attempts to do something a little experimental within the limits imposed by the material’s horror context. Curiously, considering that he was the director behind the notorious “A Serbian Film”, Srdjan Spasojevic’s “Removed” is one of those that falls flat on its face through trying far too hard to be clever, and is too allegorical and arty for its own good, ending up simply being incoherent and, ultimately, rather tedious.

I enjoyed “Hobo With A Shotgun” director Jason Eisener’s Canadian entry “Youngbuck” though: this perverse coming-of-age-tale manages to include all the dubious content necessary to make an immediate impression, with its tale of a paedophile school janitor corrupting one of the cherub-faced innocents from the kiddies’ basket-ball team, but it does it in an arresting fashion, without dialogue and choreographed and edited like an MTV music video, in this instance one for Bostonian melodic instrumental metal group Powerglove, whose oeuvre is based around parodying 1980s action film music and cheesy TV themes. “Deadgirl” director Marcel Sarmiento manages to combine the disquieting conceptual underpinnings of his debut feature with some striking images in the memorable “Dogfight” -- a visually stylised, slow-motion short based around an underground ‘fight club’ face-off between man and canine beast which is weird, surreal and shocking, but ends satisfyingly with a freakishly absurd twist.

Simon Rumley (“Red, White & Blue”) follows Sarmiento’s lead by resorting in his film “Pressure” to the visual suggestion of twisted animal abuse taking place, but here it acts as the disturbing pay-off to a story, again without dialogue, that doesn’t feel like it belongs in a horror anthology at all until its final moments, as it tells the tale of an impoverished South American prostitute attempting to provide for her children and resorting to ever more degrading acts in her efforts to do so. However, the job which eventually allows her to pay her way successfully is one that threatens to warp the soul rather than the body; the horror of the situation stems from the fact that, in her environment, this is actually the best option she has. Jorge Michel Grau (“We Are What We Are”) also attaches a lofty social message to his piece, which is an otherwise straightforward depiction of the brutal murder of a woman in a bathroom, accompanied by an almost serene internal monologue from the victim floating in a wash over the brutal imagery. Apparently the point of it all is to flag up for public notice the staggering statistics relating to the amount of women murdered each year in Mexico, but the outlandish and protracted nature of the death scene depicted, here, seems rather better designed to gross the viewer out than to inform. “Frontiers” director Xavier Gens oversees one of two worthwhile contributions from France with “XXL”, even if this sarcastic comment on the media promotion of an unobtainable female body image through ubiquitous advertising is reliant on some of that extreme imagery which marked out French horror a decade ago. In this short, an obese woman is so mocked and cruelly taunted on her way home through the city streets while surrounded by hoardings featuring the same ultra-slime model beauty, that she bloodily sculpts herself a new body in the shower using a carving knife and an electric blade when she gets back to her dim apartment.

But if shocking imagery and taboo subject-matter is the name of the game here, then there’s no-one who can outdo the three contributions from the Japanese contingent. The what-the-fuck-did-I-just-see?-o-meter is sent into the stratosphere by Noboru Iguchi (“Robo Geisha”) and his pervy fantasy “Fart”. Where to start with this one? Iguchi turns out to be a smiley, pot-bellied, jovial chappie who cheerfully admits in the making of segment for this short, that his favourite hobby is ‘to see girls farting as often as possible!’ Beginning with its schoolgirl protagonist letting rip on her way home from class (and thus providing for that other Japanese fetish obsession: the up-skirt pantie shot) only to find her intestinal indiscretions are being observed by the female schoolteacher on whom she has a massive crush, this startlingly offbeat episode culminates in an earthquake which brings about the apocalypse when it causes the land to crack open, resulting, appropriately enough, in the release of poisonous gases from the Earth’s innards. Thus, teacher does the only thing that can be done in such circumstances, which is to let her favourite pupil smell her trumps before they both die!

Iguchi was certainly high on something when he crafted this shamelessly odd bum burp obsessed sleaze-fest, but even his effort is beaten by the last segment in the anthology courtesy of “Tokyo Gore Police” director  Yoshihiro Nishimura, who combines a Day-Glo “Dr Strangelove” pastiche and random anti-American/anti-nuclear power sentiments with gratuitous nudity from both sexes and an incomprehensible storyline, which mostly consists of a fight scene between two nude women, one with a massive five foot-long strap-on which she uses a battering ram and the other a karate kicking combatant who is ‘armed’ with carrots which she fires  like high-velocity bullets from her vagina! All this makes “Jidai-Geki” by Yudai Yamaguchi (“Yakuza Weapon”) seem positively sane, even though the stripped-down scenario involves an executioner becoming increasingly distracted by his victim’s cartoonish face-pulling contortions while he attempts to take aim with his sword, and those facial distortions become more and more outlandish and surreal.

Other less explicitly provocative attempts to dazzle with flamboyant visuals include UK director Jake West’s “Speed”, which involves fetish-wear models on the run from Death himself in the American mid-west; live-action animation “Hydro-Electric Diffusion” by Thomas Cappelen Malling (Norwegian Ninja) in which a steampunk alternate WW2 universe populated by humanoid animals is memorably unveiled; and Kaare Andrews’ (“Altitude”) “Vagitus" – a remarkably assured attempt to create a futuristic sci-fi action flick on a minuscule budget, that looks like it has had about triple the budget of every other entry spent on it, when it was actually made for the same amount as every other film here.

Some of the directors attempt to ‘do something different’ from the norm, approaching the project as an opportunity to experiment with the form, but still end up inventing similar ideas anyway. This proves to be the case for “The Reef” director Andrew Traucki, whose faux single shot POV led surfing drama “Gravity” simply doesn’t work at all. Ben Wheatley’s attempt at the same idea, in which the camera takes the POV of, in this case, a zombie-like possessed creature as it is sprung from its coffin, chased through a forest at night, staked and finally beheaded, works better and is nicely filmed, but “Unearthed” plays more like a demonstration reel and has little in the way of story to augment the pleasing technical aspects of its production. It’s really rather a disappointment precisely because Wheatley is one of the most promising British directors at work in the film industry at the moment and we expect more. “A Horrible Way to Die” director Adam Wingard goes for a meta-textual, postmodern self-referencing approach, basing the plot of his film around his own supposed attempt to come up with an idea for the letter Q. Finally, after a series of failed attempts, he and his accomplice resort to shock tactics and resolve to kill an animal on screen, but since they’ve been lumbered with the letter Q, that animal will have to be a duck! Will Mr Quack survive?  Jon Schnepp’s “WTF?” is based on a similar scenario in which he and his team are stuck on the letter ‘W’ and can’t decide on a topic, only to find their surreal flights of fancy turning into reality anyway, leading to all manner of derangement being let loose on the streets outside their production offices. Meanwhile, both the animated “Kutz” by Anders Morgenthaler and “Toilet” by Claymation proponent Lee Hardcastle (who obtained his place in the film after winning a competition) involve death by toilet seat after unusual goings on during that most private of moments in the smallest room, even though they arrive at their similar denouements via very divergent routes.

Perhaps the most successful pieces overall, though, are those which keep it simple but manage to arrive at a memorable image or a creepy idea in the course of their proceedings. “Amer” co-directors Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet certainly bring more of the same achingly stylish, fetishistic eye-candy to their piece, “Orgasm”; the same type which graced their baroque debut feature -- although this work feels more like an outtake from that film than anything particularly new, and is similarly an exercise in striking imagery and intricate sound design. Angelia Bettis’  “Exterminate” is a disappointment though, losing sight of the inherent nastiness suggested by its concluding scenes and squandering valuable minutes on whimsical silliness. “Timecrimes” director Nacho Vigalondo kicks the whole shebang off with a simple but effective scenario in “Apocalypse” -- which must be doing something right since it was one of the first to be recalled to mind when I thought back afterwards over how each film compares alongside its companions. Adrián García Bogliano’s “Bigfoot” is also based on a simple enough conceit, and probably suffers overly from its specific Mexican cultural references failing to translate for overseas audiences; yet the idea of a scary bedtime story being used to keep a child out of the adults’ hair but then proving all too real, is always an effective one. Ernesto Díaz Espinoza confesses to riffing heavily on ideas borrowed from David Lynch films for “Cycle” (there’s also a hint of Vigalondo’s “Timecrimes” about it too) but this tale of a mysterious black hole-like portal in a Chilean couple’s back garden, which messes with their lives in bizarrely paradoxical, alternate reality-creating ways, is one of the better entries in this extremely varied bunch.

Anyone looking for coherence of theme or approach will most probably find this film more trying and frustrating than anything else. It’s much better viewed as a snapshot of the current climate in horror, with graphic gore still proving a dominant motif (followed by grim sexual violence and gaudy visual excess), but there are one or two quieter, more considered pieces of work here also, that remind us that there is still room for craft, intelligence and careful scene-setting in today’s climate -- qualities still much to be admired. Watch it in bite-sized portions to avoid the sensation of being assaulted with a mishmash of styles that overload the senses, and this is a worthy effort. This UK Blu-ray release from Monster Pictures provides plenty of bang for your buck, with the two hour film being complemented by several hours’ worth of extra features, including a full commentary, in which every director gets the chance to talk about the project and their involvement in it. There are also a cavalcade of ‘making of’ docs, behind the scenes footage, deleted scenes, picture galleries, interviews and special effects demos for various episodes .Plus there are a selection of trailers included. As a whole, the extras provide quite an interesting insight into the various film-making goals different directors aimed to accomplish by agreeing to take part in this probably rather misconceived project, and if the results don’t always hang together terribly convincingly it still includes enough originality and material of interest to be worth indulging its many eccentricities and the occasional misfire, for a little time at least.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night! 

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