Anthology films, that strange format 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.
Some themes are more immediately apparent 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 is for Orgasm [by Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet], or D is for Dogfight [by Marcel Sarmiento], 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 [by Lee Hardcastle] 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 is for Apocalypse [by Nacho Vigolando] 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 [by Iguchi Noboru] 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 The Innkeepers is one of the most ridiculously overpraised genre films 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 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 T is for Toilet, 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 subjected to from slightly more established directors.
Premiering for a Midnight Madness 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 standalone pieces, 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. The 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.
[Full disclosure: ScreenAnarchy founder Todd Brown is credited as an associate producer on this film. He was not involved in the editing of this review.]
Review originally published in slightly different form during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2012. The ABCs of Death opens in limited theatrical release in the U.S. on Friday, March 8, 2013. Check the official site for more information.