Though given “complete artistic freedom,” the international directors charged with spinning horrific tales pegged to a letter of the alphabet for The ABCs of Death 2 are largely content to let their imaginations swim at the shallow end of the pool. Irony is a popular pose struck throughout these shorts, which are less revealing of the existentialist despair that death often rouses than they are of their makers’ prejudices: the playful Gondrian conceptualization of Alejandro Brugués’s E Is for Equilibrium is squandered once it reveals itself as an inane “bros before hoes” pissing contest, and Juan Martinez Moreno’s S Is for Split undermines its nerve-jangly use of split-screen by treating homophobia as a punchline. Even the finer contributions to the anthology are prone to self-sabotage: Robert Boocheck’s M Is for Masticate, reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s iconic video for Wax’s “California,” dazzles for its weirdly ultra-slow-motion depiction of a random act of violence, until a seconds-long coda dumbly repositions the whole thing as a public-service announcement, while Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper’s K Is for Knell begins as an unbelievably framed and choreographed vision of a terrifying alien takeover only to end up suffocated beneath the weight of its metaphorical overload.
The morality mini-plays are almost uniformly reductive, as in Julian Gilbey’s C Is for Capital Punishment and Hajime Ohata’s O Is for Ochlocracy, both concerning agents of law and order who are neither lawful nor orderly, though Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s F Is for Falling is canny for how it keys its unpredictable narrative beats to the sense of outrage, obligation, and presumptuousness felt by the pawns in its Israeli-Palestinian impasse. Gore and nostalgia wankery are also in abundant supply throughout, as are the half-hearted regurgitations of familiar themes by the more established filmmakers: Bill Plympton’s H Is for Head Games imagines a man and woman waging war against each other with eyes, tongues, and blood as their weaponry, and Vincenzo Natali offers a dull future vision with U Is for Utopia, in which being schlubby means having to be incinerated to death inside a coffin/Segway hybrid before an audience of hotties. And though Robert Morgan’s stop-motion D Is for Deloused, a disturbingly heady depiction of the death of the self, stands triumphant above all, it’s also an unfortunate metaphor for the crisis of this anthology: Give bourgeoning masters of horror a break and chances are they’ll devour themselves in the process.