It's easy to see the appeal of doing an anthology geared around a single concept and adhering mostly to a single genre constraint. There was last year's 'V/H/S,' which was tepidly received by most critics, but garnered enough attention amongst horror enthusiasts that the folks behind the first one have since put together a sequel, which has been creatively titled 'V/H/S/2.'
At around the same time, the Alamo Drafthouse's Tim League and co-producer Ant Timpson were revving up 'The ABCs of Death,' a wholly different experience which still uses the anthology principle, but is far broader in its scope and doesn't necessarily require each entry to be considered "horror." In fact, the collection of short films – some of which are very short – comprising 'The ABCs of Death' are only very loosely connected by a similar concept of death and the fact that each segment finds its title from a single letter of the alphabet – e.g. 'A is for Apocalypse.' The result, then, is 26 different shorts from 26 (technically 27, as one short is a co-directed effort) different directors who have built a brief narrative around a single word corresponding to their letter. Needless to say, the sheer amount of creative energy contained within the roughly 90-minute running time should be enough to spark some interest in even the most jaded of film goer (genre fan or not).
What's remarkable about 'The ABCs of Death' is that each filmmaker was, as is made known by a brief statement at the beginning of the film, given "complete artistic freedom regarding the content of their segments." Because of this – and more likely because of the list of directors the film was able to wrangle up – the "content" of these segments is wildly disparate, even though they all mostly hover around the concept of death. With a line-up of directors that includes the likes of 'V/H/S' contributor Ti West, director of the underrated 'The House of the Devil' and 'The Innkeepers,' Srdjan Spasojevic, the mind behind the seen-it-once-and-you-are-scarred-for-life 'A Serbian Film' and the fantastic Ben Wheatley, who has given us 'Kill List' and 'Sightseers,' most recently.
From that short list it's clear 'The ABCs of Death' has gathered a wide, multi-national talent pool, which means the disparity between some of the shorts is practically night and day. The madness starts with Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo's 'A is for Apocalypse,' a fairly straightforward, but gruesome segment, which depicts a woman trying to brutally murder her sick husband. Minutes later, we're treated to Marcel Sarmiento's 'D is for Dogfight,' a visually arresting segment that almost completely does without dialogue, is entirely in slow motion and could easily be one of the most gorgeous (if slightly divisive) music videos in the last 10 years. Shortly after there is Noboru Iguchi's 'F is for Fart,' which besides making me cringe for having to type that title, is a mostly incoherent and uncomfortably pervy segment centered around a deadly black gas and, uh, other gasses which may or may not emanate from Japanese schoolgirls.
Ultimately, the main draw for 'The ABCs of Death' doesn't come from its subject matter, but rather from the idea that so much creative energy exists in a single film. Some of the directors have presented fun and imaginative segments, some of which are, considering what must have been extreme budgetary restraints, shockingly well made. On the flipside, though, a few segments, like the one brought to you by the letter 'F' and, more even more outrageous and highly politicized, 'Z is for Zetsumetsu (from Yoshihiro Nishimura), are more like the dreams of a 13-year-old who just discovered GWAR and whose Internet search history would make Ron Jeremy blush.
Even though there's no real connective tissue between them, and it's unlikely any of the directors even spoke with one another before during or even after making their shorts, it is worth noting how strangely fixated most of the directors are with sex and toilets – or just bathrooms in general. There's even an entire segment dedicated to the horrors of a porcelain throne come to life in Lee Hardcastle's stop-motion animated piece, which is appropriately titled 'T is for Toilet.' But the preponderance of such puerile subject matter isn't necessarily a deal breaker, since less juvenile segments like the violently inane, but visually exciting 'V is for Vagitus' by Kaare Andrews temper the more overbearing infantile moments.
That feeling of diversity is what keeps the viewer's interest, and while the 'The ABCs of Death' has managed to traverse the globe in search of talent for this anthology, that search disappointingly managed to secure only two female directors. One segment is the playfully creepy 'E is for Exterminate' by frequent Lucky McKee collaborator Angela Bettis, while the other is 'O is for Orgasm,' a co-directed effort from French writer-director Hélèn Cattet and Bruno Forzani. This criticism is not an indictment of the producers or anything (perhaps they really could only find two female directors who were interested), but considering there were 26 spots open, it would have been nice to see women better represented here in the creative sense.
All in all, this is an ambitious anthology that, despite some misfires, packs a mighty creative wallop. It's rare to see this many individuals given the opportunity to combine their imaginations with those of their peers. It may not all be art, but the effort put into harnessing all this into one anthology is enough to make 'The ABCs of Death' worth checking out.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The ABCs of Death' comes as a single 50 GB disc from Magnet. The disc comes in the standard keepcase and will auto play several previews before reaching the top menu. All previews can be skipped.
Although it is an anthology, and wildly different filming techniques were used in creating the shorts, the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer does a superb job in making each segment look its best, whether it deliberately doesn't want to or not (I'm looking at you 'M is for Miscarriage).
In nearly every instance the image is crisp, clean and some are highly detailed. Colors are bright and vivid and do a very nice job of handling the various settings, light levels and, most importantly, skin tones of the actors. In the case of the two animated sequences (the aforementioned 'T is for Toilet' and 'K is for Klutz,' the colors are actually quite exquisite and really pop from the screen.
Unless it's otherwise intentionally obscured, the fine detail is also very good all around. Again, there are a few shorts that appear to have been shot on 16mm, so there is some elimination of the fine detail there, but overall, the facial features, fine textures and background elements are all on display here.
It's hard to judge the quality of the image here taken as a whole, as the production value on the various shorts tends to differ wildly. Still, the disc does a tremendous job in bringing out the best in each segment and lending some visual consistency to a disc that doesn't necessarily need any, but certainly benefits from having some.
Like the image, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does a fantastic job of making these various segments feel as though they were created with set values in mind. The sound on each segment demonstrates how, regardless the country of origin, or the language that is spoken the primary concern for the audio mix is dialogue clarity. Each segment delivers fantastic sounding dialogue through the center channel speaker – though there are a few segments like Kaare Andrews' that utilize a wider range – while the sound effects and score (if there is any) are generally focused through the front right and left channels.
Several of the segments also make good use of the rear channels with extra sound effects, crow noise or musical elements – again Andrews' is probably the best example, but 'W is for WTF?' from 'Metalocalypse' director Jon Schnepp also makes good use of the dynamic range. Strangely, there's little LFE on display in most of the shorts, but when it's present, it is deep and rich, and doesn't feel overblown.
In general, the DTS mix on 'The ABCs of Death' does a great job of maintaining balance between the various audio elements while also maintaining a balance between the various segments themselves. While some may purposely sound better than others, the mix here does a great job of making them sound consistent.
There's a lot to take in with 'The ABCs of Death,' and, for the most part, it's an enjoyable, but very bizarre ride. That being said, judging by how many of the segments simply don't work, or come off as too esoteric for their own good, there's the feeling that the whole is somewhat hindered by its parts. Still, as far as experiments go, this one is elevated by a better than expected picture and sound quality, making this anthology definitely worth checking out.