Sunday, November 3, 2013

The ABCs of Death

For me, horror movie season is pretty much endless. I could call this a Halloween post, only it’s too late for that, so whatever. I just watched The ABCs of Death, a sort-of-horror anthology of short films, one of the current projects waving its blood-soaked hands for our attention in this crazy new world where anyone with a camera can make a horror film. In this case, 26 directors each got a $5,000 budget, a five-minute time limit, and one randomly-assigned letter of the alphabet, and were encouraged to go hog-wild. Anthology films are fun because no one entry lingers long enough to bore you, but their inevitable downside is the miles-wide spectrum of quality. Some entries are inspired, even elegant, while others are pure shit. Sometimes literally.

As a whole, The ABCs of Death pretty much works, although it does run awfully long. Maybe a shorter time limit would have forced the various directors to be a little less self-indulgent in some cases. The best entries are the ones that stick to a very simple premise, focusing on style and striking images over gimmickry. There’s a lot of humor and a lot of pure horror, and no less than four of the shorts are scatological in nature, because obviously when you think of death, you think of things that come out your anus. Obviously. Here’s my rundown of all 26 short films, complete with letter grades. And just to warn you, I’m not the type of person who’s gonna be all like, “This next film was directed by Fleeble McFleeble, who made Escape From Fleeble Island!” If you want to know about the directors, look them up yourself.

Oh, and there will be SOME SPOILERS.

A is for Apocalypse
Good beginning -- simple, effective, and packing a proper punchline. A housewife attempts to violently murder her husband as he eats breakfast in bed. The gore is excessive and rather amusing, but what makes the entry work is the ending, which, yeah, is given away in the title. (I guess there’s a reason the makers of the anthology stuck the credits at the end of each short.) Sometimes what is implied is better than what’s shown -- a lesson many future entries could have learned. B+

B is for Bigfoot
A randy young couple wants to fuck blind, but this little girl won’t go to bed, so they tell her a made-up story about a boogeyman figure who eats kids’ hearts. Gee, wonder what happens next. It’s nicely made, for sure, but I was confused about the characters’ relationships and the entire story arc is sooooo easy to predict. Nice use of a pizza cutter, though. B

C is for Cycle

Okay, this one I found really neat. A dude finds himself in some sort of temporal loop, visualized by a creepy shrubbery tunnel in his backyard. Ultimately, he is his own worst enemy. There’s barely any dialogue; images (often revisited) tell the story as we gradually see what’s going on. It may not entirely make sense, but it gets the point across and projects a nicely dread-filled atmosphere. A

D is for Dogfight
This is the first entry to tell the story entirely without words, and man, does it work. We’re in a sleazy underground fighting ring, where a scruffy man battles for his life against a savage dog. Only the man and the dog, shall we say, already have a history. Muffled soundtrack, tons of slow-motion, intense music -- there’s a reason such filmmaking tropes work over and over. Also, damn good acting from the dog. I’m serious! This is one of the anthology’s big showcases, for good reason. A

E is for Exterminate
Basically an urban legend brought to life in an icky/funny way. A dude is being bothered by a spider, who seems capable of holding a grudge -- unusual for an arachnid, but it sure pays off at the end, when we learn just where the spider laid its eggs. Not terribly profound, but the SFX are convincing and the overall timing makes you giggle and cringe. B

F is for Fart
Sigh. Japan...why are you so fucking weird? I mean, I love it, but sometimes I wonder what the point is. In this short, a cute schoolgirl dwells unduly on the flatulence of her equally cute teacher. Somehow, this unleashes a vengeful act of God, I guess; hapless victims catch fire and die while the two leads wind up in some kind of fart-themed afterlife. Look, I DON’T KNOW, okay? I’d say this entry is trying too hard, and I also pray the director hasn’t been waiting to make this inexplicable ode to female poots his whole life. C

G is for Gravity
Bare-bones filmmaking, and it works, I suppose. The short is told from the POV of a dude who arrives at the beach to go surfing, except what he really plans is to kill himself. We have to guess this, as the wordless images quietly speak for themselves. It’s haunting, to be sure. B+

H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion
This might be the goofiest entry, but damn it, I couldn’t help but enjoy it. A British WWII pilot encounters a sexy burlesque dancer who turns out to be a murderous Nazi bitch. Also, for no real reason, both are anthropomorphic animals. Why not? It’s a live-action cartoon with a triumphant ending and a creative use of testicles, so ridiculous it works. Impressive makeup job, too! A-

I is for Ingrown
Aaaaand this next one turns the mood right back to bleak, chronicling the death struggle of a bound woman after her captor gives her a lethal injection. No melodrama, just a pitiable, plausible horror scenario. Apparently, this film was made to recognize all the women murdered in real life (in Mexico especially). Although the woman’s narration is too cryptic, the short works because of its minimalist terror. A-

J is for Jidai-geki
The title translates to “Samurai movie,” and I guess this is a parody. A samurai is committing seppuku, and the man chosen to behead him is having a hard time concentrating, possibly because of the victim’s whacko facial expressions. We’ve all had those moments where we cracked up at the worst possible time; this is kind of like that, only with levitating eyeballs. Did I mention Japan is weird? B

K is for Klutz
Scatology #2: Woman vs. Poo. This one’s a cartoon of a glammed-out lady using a public restroom, then having to wrangle her own feces as it tries to escape its porcelain fate. It’s like a deleted scene from Ren & Stimpy. It’s funny (I loved the squeaky noise made by the wayward turd), but it feels like it belongs in a different anthology, and the grisly ending is like they suddenly remembered the whole “death” theme at the last minute. At least it’s off the beaten path. B-

L is for Libido
This is the entry that’ll cause half the viewers to quit in disgust. It begins with a sexy, half-naked guy strapped to chair, which sounds fun to me, but soon enough he’s forced to compete in a twisted psychosexual game where he must out-masturbate other men or be killed by a drill up the poop-chute. Meanwhile, the stuff he has to jerk off to gets progressively more twisted. I am not sure why this had to exist, but it actually escapes pure dreck by being tongue-in-cheek. But just barely. I didn’t like it, but at the time, I didn’t realize worse was coming. C-

M is for Miscarriage
This is the shortest entry, and barely qualifies as a film. A woman is bothered by her clogged toilet, and the problem turns out to be...well, once again, the title’s a spoiler. And that’s all. It’s just a brief, icky snapshot, and you can’t help but wonder if the director thought this somehow made it more effective. Instead, I found it lazy, and shocking in a way that doesn’t have much impact all by itself. Try harder, please. C

N is for Nuptials
Seems like these days, you need a creative way to propose to your girlfriend. A talking parrot is a fun idea, but make sure it’s not gonna repeat things your girlfriend shouldn’t hear. Short but sweet, this entry is a cute joke with a morbid punchline. Again, the “death” part feels forced; this is really a skit, not a short film. But it ain’t bad. B

O is for Orgasm
The French call an orgasm “La Petite Mort” -- the little death. This short is very French, and pretty cool, visualizing a woman’s orgasm(s) with dreamlike imagery: bubbles, creaking leather, crackling cigarettes, color filters. It’s hard to tell if the death is meant to be literal (there’s some erotic asphyxiation near the end), but I enjoyed such an artsy take on mortality, such a sumptuous blending of sight and sound. A-

P is for Pressure
I’d call this a decent short film that deserves a better ending. With no dialogue and handheld footage, we see a prostitute care for her children, dream of making enough money to treat them, and sink into despair. Her need drives her to participate in a shady film shoot; we think it’s gonna be a snuff film, and it kind of is, but...well, I couldn’t tell if the “punchline” was supposed to be funny or not. Very good filmmaking, but what exactly is it trying to say at the end? Beats me. B

Q is for Quack
Leave it to the Americans to get meta. In this dry, amusing short, the director and producer agonize over the fact that they got saddled with the letter Q. To spice up the production, they decide to feature an actual killing -- of a duck, in this case. The payoff may be somewhat predictable (karma, bitches!), but it’s still really damn funny, and I hope that duck had a long, happy life off-camera. This upending of the formula is done a hell of a lot better than the guys who got the letter W. We’ll get to them. B+

R is for Removed

This is my favorite entry in the anthology: it’s grim, it’s mysterious, it hints at things but leaves you to decide the answer for yourself. We see a grisly hospital patient, his flesh like pulled pork, held prisoner and displayed to the public. Strips of his skin are removed and turned into 35MM film -- at least, that’s what it looks like. His face is unseen -- is he a modern Frankenstein monster? A warped messiah? The final image of the film may imply the latter. I loved how this short toyed with our expectations and stayed unique from start to finish. If all the entries had been like this, we’d have a horror masterpiece. A

S is for Speed
It’s 1970s grindhouse style! A leather-clad vixen tears through the desert in a bitchin’ set of wheels, pursued by a sinister man in black. Spoiler alert: the woman is actually a dying junkie, and the desert scenes represent her inevitable date with the reaper. Effectively done, though it loses points just because I’m sick of 1970s grindhouse style. Damn you, Robert Rodriguez. B

T is for Toilet
I HATED this one. Fucking hated it in ways I can’t quite describe. It’s claymation: a little kid is afraid to use the toilet, his dad is a total asshole, then the toilet turns into a slavering monster and murders the parents. I’m baffled by other reviews I’ve read that praise this entry. It’s bottom-of-the-barrel bad. The animation is beyond crude and sloppy. The gratuitous gore isn’t even gratuitous in a funny way; it’s just ugly, cruel, and mean-spirited. The ending dives even deeper into nasty nihilism. Fuck this entry; they should never have allowed it to stand alongside the rest. F

U is for Unearthed
A vampire attacks people, then gets destroyed in the standard stakey way. But, OMG, everything is seen from the vamp’s POV! Not a bad gimmick, but the thing is, you need more than a gimmick to carry a movie, even a really short one. There’s really nothing to this beyond the POV hook, and it left no impression on me. C+

V is for Vagitus
Ahhhhh, failed ambition. The filmmakers of this entry decided to make an entire sci-fi epic, set in a dystopian future where there’s robots and telepathy and it’s illegal to have babies, or something. A policewoman is sent to oust some rebels and soon finds herself Questioning Authority, blah blah blah. Nice production values, but the acting is quite schlocky and trying to cram this much story into five minutes just leads to a muddled mess. I guess they win points for trying. C+

W is for WTF!
This was where I could really feel the movie running out of steam. Again, it’s dumb Americans bemoaning how they can’t make a good short film, but the meta-trick was only funny once. Worse, this entry quickly devolves into a psychedelic clusterfuck involving zombie clowns, a giant walrus, and a lot of self-congratulatory wanking. It’s the film equivalent of people who throw a lot of random MS Paint effects together and call it a webcomic. And it’s putrid. D

X is for XXL
I found this one to be the most disturbing of them all, because it’s a horrific bloodbath with real-world implications. It features an obese woman, cruelly mocked by society, surrounded by the perky faces of stick-thin models, who decides to forcibly shed weight via various sharp implements. It lingers for far too long on her suffering and crimson self-mutilation, but that’s kinda the point. I really hated watching it, but I felt like it was somehow important to. Grand guignol with a message; the victimization of women with all the masturbatory bullshit stripped away. A-

Y is for Youngbuck
I thought maybe Danny Boyle made this, what with the queasy oversaturated colors and dizzying synth score. No such luck, but I’ll take it anyway. Another wordless drama, this one shows us a creepy school janitor who looks like Steve Buscemi’s dad, and who tastes violent vengeance from a boy he molested. A severed deer head is involved. No way can this be taken seriously, but the colors and music lend it dream logic, so it gets away with excess. B+

Z is for Zetsumetsu
The one big problem with the alphabet gimmick: you’re stuck with a predetermined order. Otherwise, they could’ve ended the anthology with something better than this nonsense. The title means “Extinction” and is even MORE proof that Japan is weird, weird, weird. This final short doesn’t even have a plot. It’s just gross, random, pornographic pseudo-satire. A Nazi chick wields a giant killer phallus. Naked men make sushi and are executed. A women uses her vagina to fire vegetables, and one dude is apparently supposed to be an Asian Dr. Strangelove. Any “message” or “analogy” gets lost in the muddle; it’s frankly a shitty note to end on. D

My final verdict on The ABCs of Death? Eh, I give it a solid B overall. If I were the editors, I would have paid more attention to the quality of the entries and maybe laid down a few more ground rules. That said, this is a tribute to the sheer, nutso, balls-out creativity of moviemaking, for better and for worse. And there are a few real gems in there. I’m down for more experiments like this, especially if they help jump-start movie careers. Sky’s the limit!

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