Anthologies are dicey propositions at best, but a compendium of 26 short films crammed into two hours and some negligible change is bound to lob a few stinkers over the plate. I guess it’s a testament to the strength of the filmmakers involved in the often gory, disturbing, and sometimes blatantly offensive and provocative The ABCs of Death that a little more than half of them stick out in the memory for a while after the neon coloured credits begin to roll.
The concept is simple. 26 directors from 15 different countries are each given a different letter of the alphabet and are asked to come up with something beginning with that letter pertaining to death in some way. The tone of the shorts thanks to so many cooks vascilates pretty wildly from the artful (G, O, P, R) to the cartoonish (Y, T, K, H) to the utterly batshit insane (F, L, X).
I suppose you’re wondering why I’m only referencing the shorts by letter and not by titles or the people who directed them. When I first saw the film back when it debuted at TIFF last year, I was asked kindly to not reveal who directed each of the film’s segments, and while such information is now a simple click away, it’s something I choose to adhere to. Upon a second watch recently it became pretty obvious that the film was far more effective when the viewers has no clue what’s coming next, like some sort of bizarre game of Russian roulette. A lot of the fun for cinema lovers comes predominantly from trying to guess where and when the strongest filmmakers will be showing up. Going in flat out knowing who did what might make the film seem unnecessarily like a chore. Despite having been released in the States quite some time ago both in theatres and on VOD, this is undoubtedly best viewed totally cold.
For those wanting to know how some of genre filmmaking’s newly appointed royalty or golden boys performed, I suppose it spoils nothing to say that the film come largely back loaded with the familiar names, but the best known names also generally turn in the strongest work. Nacho Vigolando, Marcel Sarmiento, Xavier Gans, and Haligonian Jason Eisner turn in the best of the bunch. Ben Wheatley also does strong work with a piece that seems to act almost as a bridge between his own Kill List and the upcoming A Field in England. Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett kind of steal the show with an out of pace bit of meta comedy that takes some of the edge off the movie around it, offering some much needed respite to an otherwise gloomy film.
The rest of the skits (including an almost appallingly slight effort from the usually reliable Ti West that seems like lazy provocation rather than anything of substance) vary wildly in quality, but they rarely raise above passing amusement that will be forgotten about approximately three shorts later. A great deal of what’s seen in the film certainly isn’t for the weak stomached, and while sometimes the film’s biggest gross out moments and (literal) money shots are put to good use, they’re often in service of stories that have not much else going for them. It’s an ambitious project to be sure, and it almost pulls off a new high score for films of this ilk simply thanks to volume alone. Still, it might be better viewed in parts at home rather than in a theatre and individual mileage will certainly vary greatly.