Twenty-six films. Twenty-six, no, 27 directors assigned a different letter of the alphabet. Three “obstructions”: to include at least one death, to keep things short, and to begin and end with a spot of red—and where some of the filmmakers settle for splatter, most of them lazily opt for a fade in and out to the color of their blood. Death is indulged sometimes disturbingly, perversely, comically, almost always grossly, and the results are, perhaps expectedly, uneven. As the directorial talent pool spans some 15 countries, one expects a more disparate display of stylistic sensibilities, but The ABCs of Death may be most frightening as a showcase of the homogenizing instincts of so many of our young, would-be masters of horror and the comfort zones outside which so few of them risk traveling.
You wouldn’t know Nacho Vigalondo was necessarily behind the willfully ambiguous Apocalypse, a gruesome trifle about a woman who either mercy-kills her bedridden husband because the world is going to hell outside or knifes him to death out of some long-gestating sense of romantic despair, and that it’s Chilean filmmaker Ernesto Diaz Espinoza behind Cycle, a killer impression (and expansion) of Vigalondo’s Timecrimes about a man who travels through the looking glass and confronts an alternate version of himself violently unpleased with his visiting self. Perhaps the only other short in this horror anthology that more slyly flips the switch on the audience’s sense of expectation is Jake West’s Speed, a disquieting take on what may be diagnosed as Final Girl Syndrome that reveals its goofily atonal riff on Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! to be the poignant hallucination of two female heroin(e) junkies.
One easily recognizes Srdjan Spasojevic (A Serbian Film) in Removed’s equation of the body and the grotesqueries it’s capable of with the possibilities and fragility of celluloid, Bruno Forzani and Héléne Cattet (Amer) in the appropriately titled Orgasm’s copious ejaculation of hyper-symbolic, giallo-influenced imagery, Ben Wheatley in the disposable Unearthed’s regurgitation of Kill List’s scorched-earth-looking kitchen-sink-drama-meets-hitman-thriller vibe (the whole thing is framed from the point of view of a vampire about to get staked), and Xavier Gens in the virtuosic, Kronos Quartet-sounding XXL’s mix of profoundly graphic body horror and psychologically attuned social commentary (a similar ambition runs throughout Simon Rumley’s startlingly humane Pressure, about the lengths a woman is pushed to in order to support her children). There’s also Ti West, who, as is his wont, locates horror in the abstract—specifically, the panic a woman feels in purging herself of a horror that lies within her.
Few of these shorts approach the horror genre with explicitly critical intent, the notable exceptions being Noboru Iguchi’s purposely sophomoric Fart, a Sapphic rom-com about a girl who chooses to die by inhaling her love interest’s flatulence that works as a metaphor for the nature of freedom, and Timo Tjahjanto’s Libido, which effectively, if somewhat tiredly, comments on our masturbatory relationship to horror-movie violence by turning pleasure into the condition by which a death sport is won; it suggests in the end 13 Tzameti as imagined by, well, Srdjan Spasojevic. Most of the filmmakers are content riffing on familiar horror themes and cultural hang-ups, such as Angela Bettis’s Cronenberg-lite Exterminate, Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s misogynistic Bigfoot, which imagines a boogeyman arising from a selfish mother’s sexual permissiveness, and Jorge Michel Grau’s Ingrown, which confuses its rather ardent and crude fixation on a poisoned kidnap victim’s final gesticulations before dying as a show of empathy.
Some of these filmmakers depend so dully on gimmickry that they’re not even worth acknowledging, while a few new kids step so fearlessly outside the box that it would be an insult not to do so. Marcel Sarmiento’s Dogfight is as slick as a Super Bowl ad (think Pleix’s “Vitalic” as reimagined by Chris Cunningham), though one that would never make it past the censors; its man-bites-dog-and-back brutality is profoundly disturbing, but it cogently locates beneath all its convincingly CGI-spruced ultra-violence the sort of loyalty animals, human and non-human alike, can never fully repress. Elsewhere, Lee Hardcastle’s stop-motion Toilet, one of two bathroom-themed cartoons in the anthology, dazzles for the tonally wry extent to which it expresses the absurdity of a child’s ostentatious nightmare about a killer toilet so as to make the horror of how unexpectedly the boy’s fears come true all the more hard-hitting. And, finally, Hobo with a Shotgun helmer Jason Eisener detonates a deliriously campy cherry bomb on us by conveying a young boy’s vengeance on the school janitor who may have sexually violated him as a K-hole transmission. Tellingly, The ABCs of Death’s finest entries convey how real horror comes in more than shades of red, and how it lives inside us all.