Horror anthologies are almost as old as straight-up horror. There are bonafide classics (Dead of Night) and worthwhile curios (Black Sabbath, The Asylum) throughout the history of genre films and now it seems they're making a comeback. Last year's V/H/S and The Theatre Bizarre rekindled our collective interest in watching masters and new voices alike tell tiny stories on a theme. Or just seeing how much depravity can be packed into a few minutes. The latest in the craze, The ABCs of Death, with 26 directors tackling a different segment for each letter of the alphabet, leans heavily on the latter, with critics finding it largely an endeavor worth forgetting. As fans of the craze, Lucas Mangum and I gave it a shot to see how it stacks up and what it says about this moment in horror.
Lucas Mangum So at long last, I ask: What did we think of ABCs of Death?
Scout Tafoya Well, it's hardly worth saying anymore, but some segments make others look like utter dreck. No theme seems to link them and few do little more than embarrass themselves. Some do even worse. So what we'll more than likely wind up doing is picking a few we love and discussing the ones worth discussing....so, allow me to start! I found the first three are mostly boring and started losing hope. Ernesto Diaz Espinosa does Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes, and Vigalondo does his own Extraterrestrial in 2 minutes.
Z has a warped early 90s energy that I half-heartedly applaud - I've seen it done better. X sort of gets there, but gets no points, what with its barely stomachable premise (PUNS!) and half-assed execution. I like director Xavier Gens' debut film (he's the only director who took the letter of his first name, if that counts for anything), even if he's struck out since then and was hoping for a glimmer of hope, that he'd return to being good at being bad. I got half of what I wanted...
Some of the folks I was most excited for supremely let me down. Angela Bettis, the only female director, seemed to have trouble executing her premise. The terrible CGI helped not at all. Andrew Traucki and Ti West, two legitimately great filmmakers, an actual fucking master in West's case, seem to have knocked theirs out in an afternoon. They don't exactly look worse for their involvement, but they probably should have politely declined, rather than get fans hopes up for something worth their personal touch. Ok, maybe West does look worse. The man made House of the Devil, for Christ's sake. He's a genius.
It was the work of Timo Tjahjanto, Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani, Ben Wheatley, Jason Eisener, Jon Schnepp, Jorge Michel Grau and Simon Rumley make the endeavor worth while. Tjahjanto, who we'll next see in V/H/S 2, at least does an awful lot of very convincing work with production design, performances and creatively gross nonsense. I'd rather have more to think about than less, even if I only like 2/3 of his ideas. Jason Eisener's isn't as good as it could have been, but I heartily applaud the art direction. Simon Rumley's is better and more interesting than his feature films. Schnepp's is hilarious and very off in a way I find appealing. Grau proves he's got more up his sleeve than just his marvelous debut, using texture just as splendidly as he did in We Are What We Are. Looking forward to his work on the sequel! Ben Wheatley's was far and away the funniest and most charming, the POV being put to devilish use and the writing and direction on par with each other; rare here. And you can't throw enough money at Cattet and Forzani for my liking. Those two are unstoppable geniuses.
The problem is...well, everything else. I mean, I guess expecting 26 films to adhere to the same standard of quality as its best is...foolish on my part, but with directors famous for movies that barely share the same genre (and fittingly, some barely qualify for inclusion in a film like this) it seems like a fool's errand packaging them together. How could anyone assume that fans of the Cattet and Forzani would like the Noburi Iguchi? The sensibilities are too off for it to ever work, even on paper, what possibility was there they'd work together? So between bright spots I was either bored, repulsed, or both.
Also, I genuinely think that encouraging Jake West and Srdjan Spasojevic is damaging to our culture. West thanks Adam Mason in the credits. He should have just handed him the camera and gone the fuck home.
Lucas I had a hard time viewing it all in one sitting because there was just so much content. By the last 45 minutes I was counting down how many films were left. Not because I disliked everything, it was just a little much to take. I think the filmmakers would've had more success breaking it up more. Maybe if it was a webseries...
I really enjoyed Adam Wingard's segment. It was fresh in the sense that it was funny and didn't involve dicks or toilets. Like you, I felt that A, B & C had their moments (C was at least interesting), but the first segment I thoroughly enjoyed was Marcel Sarmiento's Dogfight. The twist put a nice bit of icing on the cake for me. I also really dug the cartoonish H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion. It was just too damn whacky for me not to get a kick out of it. Grau's segment was a truly unpleasant piece of film, but it was so effective for that reason. It was, after all, addressing a real-world unpleasant topic. I'd call it an ugly masterpiece. I felt the same way about L is for Libido, but I could've done without the little boys scene. As uncool as it may seem for someone so into horror, I do have my limits. Aside from that, I found it to be a twisted surreal journey through the world of sexual deviance. I respectfully disagree with you over Jake West's segment. It possessed a larger than life comic book style that I quite enjoyed and, while not original, I kind of dug that it was all some drug-fueled death dream. Vagitus was just really cool because it had that dystopic element to it that almost always wins me over when I see it. For some reason W & Z felt really similar for me, and I almost wished they weren't so close together. I guess that would involve fucking up the alphabet.
Scout You bring up an interesting point about pedophilia. Which is to say that films like this, and in their deliberately singling out directors known for extremity in its many forms, the curators must know and most probably hope for and encourage incredibly 'edgy' material from them.
So my thought is, is there anything left to find in that direction? I can sort of hear "it's like Saw but with 12 year olds" being pitched in a boardroom somewhere. Like, at this point, 50 years after the invention of the gore film and 40 years after its apex with the Cannibal movies of the late 70s, and now with standards relaxed to an all-time low, what else is there? Tjahjanto putting kids in his movie is sort of like paying lip service to the big question mark hanging over the genre. If we can get away with that (and clearly we can), then what else is there left to do?
I do sincerely hope this promotes a return to classicism and in some ways I can see it approaching (formal elegance saved Kiss of the Damned from being a total bore and the school of hyperactive Asian Frankenstein Girl movies has definitely lost the rabidness of demand it once had).
I can only hope we get a slew of movies who count The Innocents, Cat People and The Haunting among their influences. Hell, I'd even settle for a new age of surrealism a la Alucarda or Messiah of Evil. The fact that among 26 movies by the world's supposed vanguard produced maybe a half dozen I'd ever consider watching again can't be a good sign.
I even feel like such subject matter can be utilized if the goal is beyond mere shock. Take a film like In a Glass Cage, for instance, in which pedophilia is a huge part of the plot. But that's just it, it's an ugly but complicated story about an ugly subject, not a thinly plotted story where such a sensitive subject is reduced to a gag for shock value's sake.
Scout Which to me is the paradox of the age we're in right now: Nothing shocks anymore, even if it churns stomachs, so why bother? I applaud Tjahjanto's inventive approach to every second of the film and the world he created, but the gag ain't much of a gag, and whether it's girls or boys, they don't mask the fact that he has nothing to say. Maybe it is meant as a commentary on our demand for the most disgusting things. If so, it's in terrible company, because no one else seems to be in an analytic mood. And frankly I'm not sure I'd buy it in Timo's case because of his gleefully sinking to the depraved depths in all their gory details.
ABCs and V/H/S both thrive on objectification, so, even if their point is "Look how gross men can be," they're perfectly happy sinking into the shit along with them. It's not enough to say that you're pushing the envelope, because the envelope doesn't exist anymore and I think we're experiencing taboo fatigue. We get that you can show anything, so now let's please get back to understanding why we didn't settle for doing that for all those years.
Even Men Behind The Sun had a point.
Lucas Yeah, I mean, as viewers we can only speculate. I'd love to see if Timo has commented in any way on what his intentions were for his film. Either way, ditto on the rest not being in an analytic mood.
Scout The propensity of actual onscreen toilets as plot points speaks volumes about collective ambition.
Lucas We're not the first to comment on that. You'd think the heads of this project would've said, "Um, we already have 3 toilet segments, sorry."
Scout Makes you wonder if they couldn't have searched a little longer for their contest winning T segment.
I think they should've used Maude Michaud's T is for Toothpick.
Me too. I only hope that guys like Larry Fessenden class up the joint in the next outing.
Definitely. I will say that I enjoy the fact that something this large was attempted and I think the potential for making something really great is there. A few five minute segments shouldn't have exhausted me as a viewer. It should've left me exhilrated and eager for the next ones.
And that is the tragedy of the endeavor. Some accounting of sensibilities should have been taken in the assigning of letters. The three in the front end shouldn't have been so similar, and then it's tonal schizophrenia from then on out.
I get that surprise and diversity is a big part of the agenda. But it also shouldn't be the worst part of the film.