Saturday, August 22, 2015

ABCs of Death 2

My, my. I have been looking forward to this.

Back in 2013, I wrote a post about The ABCs of Death, an anthology of (mostly) horror-themed short films. I found it to be quite enjoyable, albeit with deeply unreliable quality control. Some of the shorts delighted me, some were “meh,” and others made me want to track down the filmmakers and stick their heads in urinals. I guess it’s inevitable that this concept become a franchise, so here we have ABCs of Death 2! Yes, I’ve been excited for it, but also nervous, because the law of diminishing returns almost always applies to horror film series. To my wonderment, ABCs of Death 2 is at least as good as its predecessor and possibly better. I bet the latest brat pack of filmmakers used the first film as a guide for what not to do; there’s less tedium, less “meta” bullshit, less poop jokes, and more clever ideas. Why, I hardly hated any of the entries! Certainly nothing ruined my good mood like the piss-awful “T is for Toilet” from the first film. Progress!

So. Once, again, 26 directors (or directing teams) from all over the world are given a letter of the alphabet and tasked with crafting a bite-sized film of five minutes or so, dealing with death and/or horror. No rules beyond that! This series may turn out to be a godsend for all the aspiring filmmakers whose names and filmographies I cannot be arsed to look up. Let’s break down the deadly twenty-six!

SPOILERS may follow.

A is for Amateur
The anthology begins at quite a clip! We find ourselves in a neon, modern-day Noir-verse as a bearded assassin sets out to bag his target. But, as with many of these entries, there’s a twist: we get a montage of the assassin seemingly making the kill, and then the film backtracks to show how, in reality, he royally fucked up. The frenetic editing confuses, but serves to set up the blackly funny payoff, and the alphabetic title (which comes at the end) makes us chuckle. B+

B is for Badger
A newly-built chemical plant is wiping out the local badger population? Wherever might this be going? Not to creature feature gold, I fear. It was a nice move to feature an obnoxious nature show host, but we know exactly where the story’s going (nom nom!) and when the money shot comes, it’s disappointingly low-budget. My thirst for mutant badgers is unquenched. B-

C is for Capital Punishment
See, I much prefer it when a film, even a gory one, aims to do more than shock. In this case, no dice. A kangaroo court of angry men plans to execute a guy they think is a murderer, but when the victim turns up alive, can they abort the beheading? No happy ending ensues. It’s too gory and too nasty-spirited, and has no point beyond gore and nasty spirits. C

D is for Deloused
I won’t bother trying to explain this one, because it doesn’t try to make sense...but it’s freaky and brilliant. Depicted in eerily fluid stop-motion animation, it opens with a man murdered by undead captors, but I’m only scratching the surface. A sentence like “There’s a clown-faced demon in the giant louse’s anus and it eats heads” sounds like William S. Burroughs’ darkest, druggiest ramblings. But there it is. A short film this unsettling and surreal doesn’t leave your thoughts quickly. A-

E is for Equilibrium
A pair of shaggy-maned louts are shipwrecked in paradise and living the carefree life. A beautiful woman washes up on their beach and teaches them some manners, but then the triangle erupts into jealousy and violence. This is presented as a comedy, but the final scenes are honestly kind of sexist, albeit in a self-aware manner. Maybe. B-

F is for Falling
Not a horror film, more a statement. A female Israeli parachutist is stuck in a tree and pleads with a gun-toting Arabic youth. Things don’t go well, and although the ending surprises, it leaves you feeling kind of sad. But is that all it’s trying to say? That the strife between Israel and Palestine is sad? We knew that already. This one needed to either take its concept further, or leave out such an obvious “moral message.” I believe it would have had greater impact. B-

G is for Grandad
What a weird little film this is, in part because both its stars have random Axl Rose haircuts. They are a snobby young man who’s living with his grandfather, and said grandfather, who seems stuck in the past but has sinister designs on his grandson. It’s all a bit muddled; we just want to see the young douchebag get his just desserts. We do, along with a pointless final “shock.” Sleepaway Camp did it better. Next. C+

H is for Head Games
Bill Plympton is an animator whose obsession with facial trauma is prominent here. In his instantly recognizable style, we see a man and woman kiss...which turns into a full-fledged war between their facial features. And I mean WAR, quite literally. It’s creative enough, although Plympton already used this premise with his 1988 short, “How to Kiss,” and it worked better then. B

I is for Invincible
This one tries too hard. A bitter group of grown siblings attempt to murder their mother for her inheritance, but nothing will kill her -- not stabbing, immolation, or decapitation. It’s implied that the poor woman’s under a curse of some kind, and I wish they’d developed that idea more instead of just flinging fake blood everywhere. The Gothic imagery is cute, but not redeeming. C-

J is for Jesus
Did I say “tries too hard”? Change that to “tries so hard it suffers a hernia.” Fuck, is this heavy-handed. A gay man is bound and subjected to a rabid Christian exorcism. Want more? The victim displays stigmata, his captors have demon faces, and then his murdered boyfriend returns as a ghoul and kills them. Boo hoo, religion sucks and gays are persecuted. Yes, I myself am gay. That doesn’t mean I like being hammered over the head with childish depictions of homophobia. The cure is more love, not ghastly revenge fantasies. Fun fact: Some guys I know from high school submitted a film, “M is for Messiah,” in which a guy was eaten by zombie Jesus. I’d rather have watched that. D

K is for Knell
But what’s this? A genuinely scary and well-made entry? Yay! It’s my favorite of them all. A woman witnesses an oily black orb appear in the sky, turning everyone around her into murderers. It’s beautifully shot, with outstanding use of color and an eerie sound design. It’s mysterious, but has no need to explain itself. There’s something about Eastern Europe that seems to inspire great horror filmmaking (see also: “R is for Removed” from the first anthology) and this is no exception. A+

L is for Legacy
I was happy to see this one here, because African filmmaking is too often overlooked. That said, I was unable to follow the plot. I guess it’s about a human sacrifice that goes awry and summons a demon, but I’m not too sure. Most of the dialogue’s in English, to no avail, and the ending is botched. Still, its old-school special effects and bold visual style win points, and remind us that making movies is not a first-world exclusive. B

M is for Masticate
This one’s stupid, yet oddly lovable. For most of the film, a hairy guy with freaky eyeballs and pee-stained Tighty Whities is barging down the sidewalk, randomly assaulting people -- in super slow motion! I will say that the short has a great sense of timing. It’s obviously a joke, and the punchline will make you roll your eyes. (Hint: What freaked us all out in May of 2012?) I guess if you’re gonna be juvenile, go for broke on style. B+

N is for Nexus
Two Gothy types hurry to hook up on Halloween, and, along with a few other characters, hurtle towards a lethal traffic accident. I bestow the “style over substance” label upon this entry. Everything foreshadows the accident, and then the accident happens, the end. A story needs more than that. However, the filmmakers make good, creative use of camera mounts and editing, and succeed in making Halloween itself look grungy and unnerving. B

O is for Ochlocracy (mob rule)
You shouldn’t need to explain your title. Still, this entry comes bearing a great idea. A zombie plague hits Japan, a cure is discovered, and the zombies put the non-zombies on trial for the “murders” they committed during their survival. I believe this might actually happen if a zombie outbreak occurred, and the short wisely lets its premise do the talking, no gimmicks needed. It’s both funny and horrifying. A

P is for P-P-P-P SCARY!
Fuck that title. I hate that title; it’s the world’s biggest cheat. The film ain’t bad, though. It pays tribute to early-20th-century comedy, shot in purple-tinted monochrome and starring a trio of stuttering, beaky-nosed jailbirds who have escaped. They encounter a man in the dark...but is he a man? I won’t spoil what happens, but it manages to be surprisingly creepy, given the overall humorous tone. A worthy homage indeed; I just HATE THAT TITLE. A-

Q is for Questionnaire
A lot of these entries have top-notch editing, and “Q” is no question. A guy falls victim to one of those “Instant Intelligence Tests” under a pop-up tent on the sidewalk. And “falls victim” is the right term; the man’s test is intercut with him having his brain surgically removed. For science? You’ll see. Besides the good editing, this one’s got a good soundtrack, with the victim’s horrid fate punctuated by the happiest, jauntiest music that ever felt totally inappropriate. A-

R is for Roulette
Three people sit in a basement, in formalwear, playing Russian Roulette. It’s a mysterious premise, and we spend the runtime waiting for the solution. When it comes, it’s maybe too obvious, but still neat. A pretty basic entry that features good acting and very good tension. B+

S is for Split
Oh, man, another good idea brought to amazing life. We’ve got a guy in France calling his wife at home in England, and their chat being interrupted by someone breaking into the house. The filmmakers use split screens to show us the husband, the wife, and the intruder simultaneously. I love it. The style would have been enough, but the plot also throws a couple killer twists in our face. I wanted to howl with glee at the final reveal. I’d watch a whole movie like this! Make it happen? Please? A+

T is for Torture Porn
...But not how you picture it. We see a sleazy porno audition, a lovely woman being treated with casual cruelty by the male film crew. Will the creeps get what’s coming to them? Yes, they will, but their exact fate is, shall we say, vague. This concept has been done plenty of times before, and better. Bonus: Sit through the anthology’s end credits to see a “continuation” featuring The Human Centipede’s very own Laurence R. Harvey! Uh.....yay? C

U is for Utopia
All together now: The future is cold and loveless, everyone is beautiful, and the imperfect are horribly persecuted. It’s every dystopian sci-fi ever, and here it goes again. However, the lack of originality is made up for in stylish filmmaking, as well as the disturbing fate of the poor schlub who doesn’t fit in with the Barbies and Kens. They didn’t reinvent the wheel, but they gave it a good polish. B+

V is for Vacation
This one’s a lurid and sorta interesting “depths of depravity” study. Shot entirely via smartphone, it features a guy calling his girlfriend from his sexy vacation spot. Then the guy’s drugged-up buddy snatches the phone and shows the girlfriend what they’ve been doing for fun. It’s cruel, its last-minute descent into bloody murder feels forced...but I can’t deny it’s effective at being distasteful. B-

W is for Wish
I laughed at this one, then felt a tad guilty. It begins as a 90s-style commercial for action figures, starring two bright-eyed boys who long to enter the toys’ world. They do, and discover it to be a grisly, violent war zone that only becomes more fucked-up. That’s the joke. Are ya laughing? I did laugh, as I said, so I suppose this succeeds, even if it’s sooooo mean. B+

X is for Xylophone
I imagine a lot of hair-pulling from whoever gets assigned the letter X. These guys just said, “Fuck it,” and went with the most obvious X-word. The result? A cute little girl whales on a toy xylophone, to the agitation of her grandmother, who looks like Wednesday Addams going through menopause. The moppet meets a grisly fate, and the film ends on a sustained note of...well, it’s more awkward than horrific. “Hey, look, gore! Can we be done now?” C+

Y is for Youth
I worried the anthology would pass by without any Japanese weirdness. Last-minute save! A teen girl composes angry texts aimed at her dysfunctional mother and stepfather. Her words become trippy revenge fantasies in which the adults are murderized by their own mistakes. Mistakes such as a giant hamburger monster. Just roll with it; it’s so bizarre and random that it passes tasteless and arrives right back at entertaining. Thanks, Japan. B+

Z is for Zygote
Unlike the first ABCs of Death, this one actually ends on an awesome entry! A man leaves his pregnant wife alone with a medicinal root that will delay childbirth. Thirteen years later, the husband isn’t back and the woman has a cheerful adolescent child...who is still trapped inside her womb. This fairy-tale-from-hell logic leads to one of the goriest scenes I’ve ever witnessed, but the film manages to be touching despite the body horror...and then ends on a note of sublime creepiness. Bravo! When they make the next one, whoever gets Z should watch this and take notes. A

And I’m sure they will make another one, because The ABCs of Death has turned out to be a gift that keeps on giving. I have no doubt they’ll find more filmmakers eager to put their visions up! I will happily keep watching, because this sequel quite possibly topped the original. Though I will dock points for its annoying theme song (a creepy little kid going “lah-lah-lah” for about eighteen fucking hours), which got super old as I sat through the credits to see if that really was Tom Felton in the “C” entry. (It wasn’t. Duh.)

But who cares about framing devices? Gimme more horrific and creative short films! Bring ’em on! Now I know my ABCs; next time won’t you scream with me? There, I wrote the third film’s tagline.

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