TIFF 2012 Review: ABCs OF DEATH

Featured Critic; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
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TIFF 2012 Review: ABCs OF DEATH
The anthology film, that strange form of film where a number of directors assemble to tell their own take on a given subject, are strange cinematic beasts. On the one hand, they play like mini festivals, a cinematic buffet, or one of those sushi places that have the dishes on a conveyor belt. As an audience member, you can sample bites from a variety of sources, with the advantage that if you don't like a given segment you only need wait a few minutes for another taste to come along.

The disadvantages, however, tend to outweigh some of the positives - no matter how strong the theme, or how capable the filmmakers, there's inevitably going to be some real stinkers that you have to sit through, and those are going to inadvertently poison those works in proximity to it. It's jarring when every few minutes you've got another radical shift in tone, and you find yourself, if not quite consciously, just waiting out even the good works until the next one comes along.

It is interesting how even at under five minutes in length, some of these films manage to feel either epic (for the good ones) or interminable (even for some of the shorter pieces). Your mind begins to play tricks with you with such serialization, as the films ebb and flow and you find yourself responding in different ways to different pieces.

The hook of this particular assemblage is the gathering of a slew of young horror and genre directors to each tell a tale of death. They were allowed to pick up to three letters, were given an extremely small stipend, and were then given their assignment, along with free reign to craft whatever they wanted. Titles for each film appear as children's blocks floating in blood, so when the film starts a part of your experience is spent in trying to find out the theme that corresponds with that letter. Many films began and ended with a crimson element that allowed for a better dissolve to the images of soupy blood and floating letter cubes.

The participants are drawn from the Midnight Madness/Fantastic Fest world, and SCREENANARCHY will soon be running a blow-by-blow account on each work and each director's contribution. This take instead is more on the experience as a whole, how the thing plays as a whole.

Some themes are more immediate than others - there's no mistaking what the filmmaker was going for with O from the opening shot of their Orgasm-themed short. Others stretched the letters a bit further, either using esoteric words or transliterated, non-English words.

Segments such as O, or D is for Dogfight are extraordinary in their own right. They're beautifully shot and crafted segments, far exceeding their humble budgetary restrictions. Neither contains a particularly shocking or salacious moment that's likely to provoke interest from the deep genre crowd, but the best works in the piece are those that work well as tightly structured and well executed isolated short films.

Kudos as well to T is for Toilet, a charming little claymation piece that was the result of a contest held online to find an independent filmmaker to add to the fray.

The first several letters happens to be Spanish language films, and share similar takes on women-in-distress horror movie tropes. Several of them are well done, others relatively mediocre, none particularly memorable, save for the A for Apocalypse that sets things right from the start. 

The Japanese contingent is expected to bring its own brand of genre insanity, and it doesn't disappoint. F is for Fart is actually one of the more charming of the lot, silly and stupid in a way that these J-pop, school girls-in-uniform fetish pieces often are, but without any pretense of seriousness. Never has the tale of a student falling for their teacher been so fragrant on screen.

There are a couple duds among the lot, of course, but it was Ti West's M is for Miscarriage that proved truly egregious. I grant outright that I've never been a fan, and think Innkeepers is one of the most ridiculously overpraised genre film in some time, but my reaction to his piece was settled before I even knew who had made it. My issue isn't that it's somehow shocking, it's of how clearly inept and lazy the work is, a sophomoric execution of a pretty callow joke. Where other pieces clearly had effort put into them, this is a silly throw-off by a lazy filmmaker, embarrassed by the quality of other pieces in proximity to it.

Taking a cue from the letter T short, the film may have well been stronger if there was a bit more of a competition for these slots. Frankly, for some of the letters, we'd have got a far stronger response from some unknown and committed filmmaker than some of the lazy works we're subject to from slightly more established directors. 

Premiering for a Midnight audience, the film was relatively well received, with people quickly picking their favorite segments. As a whole, though, there's little to recommend this as more than a noble experiment. I love the idea of this assemblage, but save for a few juicy bits which could easily be watched as a standalone piece, there's little to recommend the piece as a whole.

I'm a big fan of giving artists certain "obstructions" (to borrow from Von Trier) and see what they can come up with, yet the results of this particular experiment are mixed at best. ABCs Of Death will continue to play reasonably well to festival audiences, but seen in isolation away from mobs of committed genre fans, there will almost certainly be a desire to skip over certain letters quickly in favour of others more deserving of your time.

[For those concerned about such things, yes, ScreenAnarchy founder Todd Brown is credited as an associate producer on this film.]
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More about ABCs of Death

Benito RobinsoniSeptember 19, 2012 3:16 AM

Really refreshing and commendable to see an honest review, unlike other websites that 'shill' for their pals. Films should always be judged without bias or nepotism. I will always expect this of my own films, no matter how upsetting the review might be. Well done Twitch.

Juan Andrés ValenciaSeptember 19, 2012 10:45 AM

So... it's an interesting experiment? That sounds good enough for me.

Mr. CavinSeptember 19, 2012 6:16 PM

"As a whole, though, there's little to recommend this as more than a
noble experiment. I love the idea of this assemblage, but save for a few
juicy bits which could easily be watched as a standalone piece, there's
little to recommend the piece as a whole."

While I haven't seen THE ABCs OF DEATH, I find that this pretty well sums up my feelings about every feature-length anthology film I have actually seen--even the one's I like fairly well. From HEAVY METAL to last year's DO NOT FORGET ME ISTANBUL, each and every one of these is neat in theory but, in practice, leaves me kind of cold. There's something about packing multiple self-contained emotional arcs into the same space that saps energy from the impact of any one discrete piece. To me, the final product feels somewhat worse than the sum of its parts. I'm not sure stories are meant to be social animals, I think they're meant to hunt alone.

PooFestSeptember 23, 2012 11:03 AM

this was easily the worst thing i watched all festival so far. hands down. perhaps the worst thing i have ever seen in my life. it was god awful. the few decent shorts (maybe three of them) could not make up for the lazy/awful/uninteresting ones. it infuriates me that quality movies i have seen at FF so far still have no distribution, and this one already does. most shorts didn't even feel like they tried. the effects in most were terrible, and it is my belief that if you cant create good effects, then use the creativity you supposedly have and try something else! don't just settle for garbage. i really think everyone involved should feel embarrassed and i will be telling everyone at the fest to avoid this at all costs.