Horror anthologies have been on the rise of late, with movies like "Trick 'r Treat," "Chillerama" and the found footage anthology "V/H/S" keeping the tradition alive. The latest anthology is "The ABCs of Death," which combines 26 shorts in what is less of an interwoven narrative like "Trick 'r Treat" or even a loosely connected anthology like "V/H/S" and more of a "Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation" of horror shorts, and we're not just saying that because of the use of animation and claymation. The end result provides a range of quality, from the inspired and creative to the lazy and insipid, but one that horror fans will certainly devour.
If there is any connective, narrative tissue, it's the alphabet itself, with "The ABCs of Death" starting with the letter "A" and continuing in order. Produced by Alamo Drafthouse's Tim League and Ant Timpson, 26 directors from around the globe were given a letter that would inspire a word that would, in turn, inspire the method of death. Each short ends by revealing the letter and the word, which often works like a punchline (for better or worse), and part of the experience of watching the film is guessing what the word might be. It's harder than you think, especially since, sometimes, the word is not in English.
"The ABCs of Death" sports plenty of known horror directors to help draw interest from genre fans and plenty more that are looking for a broader audience. Nacho Vigalondo ("Timecrimes") gets the ball rolling with an unique take on a familiar subject, while Marcel Sarmiento ("Deadgirl") follows a few shorts later with what seemed the clear audience favorite, with a surprise ending that drew cheers from the crowd. Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett ("You're Next") acquit themselves well by appearing in the (surprisingly) only meta-piece in the bunch and reveal that each director was handed about $5,000 each for their segment, which, if true, means that Ti West ("The Innkeepers," "The House of The Devil") walked away with a decent payday, since it probably only took about $30 and a morning to shoot his segment. Considering West's inspired additions to the horror genre of late -- including a simple and satisfying segment in "V/H/S" -- calling his portion disappointing would be an understatement.
However, West's "M" certainly isn't the only misfire in the film, and directors like Noboru Iguchi ("Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead"), Xavier Gens ("The Divide"), Jason Eisener ("Hobo With a Shotgun") and Ben Wheatley ("Kill List") deliver on their expectations. Iguchi, who has worked in the Japanese adult film industry as well as creating cult horror films, was given the letter "F" and, while the word Iguchi decided to use is fairly predictable, the results are the kind of ridiculous fun you'd expect from the director of "RoboGeisha." Wheatley, meanwhile, takes on the vampire genre in an inspired segment shot entirely from a character's POV, while both Gens and Eisener offer satisfyingly bloody shorts, even if you can see the endings coming from a mile away.
Fans will no doubt appreciate the way "The ABCs of Death" spans several genres as well as the gristly results of almost all of the shorts. But, like any short film collection, there are good ones and there are bad ones, which makes "The ABCs of Death" a less successful outing than it should have been. Of course, this result is typical of horror anthologies, and should be expected when 26 different directors get invited to make the same movie, but perhaps turning this endeavor into a trilogy (Hollywood does love a good trilogy) would have allowed for some deeper storytelling and some greater risks. There's no taking away the ambition of "The ABCs of Death," and the fact that Alamo gave such freedom to their directors commands a certain respect, but it's interesting that, in doing so, the results were, at times, so flaccid and forgettable. Perhaps hoping for 26 terrific short films isn't a realistic proposition, and, when so much of the movie works in delivering a filthy, disgusting good time over its two exhausting hours, it seems like a small complaint. "The ABCs of Death" likely isn't going to win over audiences that weren't already horror fans, but it has so much for genre fans (and short film fans) to enjoy that it's worth it. [B]
This is a reprint of our review the AFI Film Festival in 2012.