Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2013

The ABCs of Death

Bloody alphabet soup

If nothing else, 'The ABCs of Death' should restore your faith in the most twisted limits of filmmakers' imaginations

The ABCs of Death
Magnet Releasing
Director: Kaare Andrews, Angela Bettis, Hélène Cattet, Ernesto Díaz Espinoza, Jason Eisener, Bruno Forzani, Adrián García Bogliano, Xavier Gens, Lee Hardcastle, Noboru Iguchi, Thomas Cappelen Malling, Jorge Michel Grau, Anders Morgenthaler, Yoshihiro Nishimura, Banjong Pisanthanakun, Simon Rumley, Marcel Sarmiento, Jon Schnepp, Srdjan Spasojevic, Timo Tjahjanto, Andrew Traucki, Nacho Vigalondo, Jake West, Ti West, Ben Wheatley, Adam Wingard and Yudai Yamaguchi
Screenplay: Kaare Andrews, Simon Barrett, Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani, Adrián García Bogliano, Lee Hardcastle, Noboru Iguchi, Thomas Cappelen Malling, Yoshihiro Nishimura, Simon Rumley, Jon Schnepp, Srdjan Spasojevic, Nacho Vigalondo, Dimitrije Vojnov, Ti West and Yudai Yamaguchi
Not rated / 2 hours, 3 minutes
Opens March 8, 2013; Now available on VOD
(out of four)

Some will come out of The ABCs of Death thinking it's disgusting, depraved, horrifying, tasteless, deranged, obscene, gratuitous, childish and over the top. I agree that it is all of those things - probably in equal measure - and that that is precisely the point, and that it is therefore not horrifying at all but actually kind of delightful.

Keep in mind that I'm not saying just anyone can go into the experience lightly. While I typically avoid this type of disclaimer, this movie is about as not-for-everyone as not-for-everyone gets. But those who get some satisfaction out of seeing filmmakers pushing the boundaries of their imagination - however dark and twisted those boundaries might be - are the audience this anthology was made for. I don't know what the exact process was behind the making of ABCs, or how collaborative (if at all) it was, but it plays out almost like a game of one-upmanship. That, or the filmmakers themselves were just challenging themselves to come up with the grossest, weirdest or most "shocking" ideas they could, and they ran with it.

The distinction needs to be made that, though the 26 segments (one corresponding to each letter of the alphabet - A is for Apocalypse, etc) are intrinsically horror-based, the vast majority of them take a comedic approach. So rather than a sick, twisted idea simply being sick and twisted, it's elevated into absurd or surreal territory.

Brazen depravity can be fun just for the ridiculousness of its existence, and by and large the filmmakers here understand that. It's that sense of absurdity that takes the film to its greatest heights, and keeps things interesting even during the parts that don't totally succeed. There's one segment (courtesy of Noboru Iguchi) about Japanese schoolgirls and erotic farting, which seems to be going out of its way to be as immature as possible. It's not one of the film's highlights by any means, but I at least admired its extreme commitment to its infantile sense of humor. (After all, when you're involved in a series of sketches based around ways to die, and you get "F is for Fart," there's really no way to class that puppy up. So you might as well be as childish as possible.)

Virtually every anthology film you see (especially one with this many shorts) is going to be a mixed bag, and The ABCs is no different. But what impressed me was that very few of the 26 segments are anything alike, so there isn't much repetition. Furthermore, the filmmaking itself is almost universally strong, even in the misses.

Thankfully, the ones that work make those misses worth it. And it's the variety that really pays off. Thinking back through the strongest segments, I was struck by how absolutely idiosyncratic each one was. Perhaps the most impressive was Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's "O is for Orgasm," a virtuoso piece of editing and sound design that makes for the most abstract and beautiful of the 26 films. It's also probably the least horror-centric feature - death is essentially an afterthought, the conclusion to a pure and unique experiment by Cattet and Forzani.

Some of the films turn their chosen mode of death (which is identified in a title card at the conclusion of its corresponding segment) into something of a punchline. (In fact, for Ti West's short, the letter M, it is the punchline.) Others use their chosen words as a springboard for something only tangentially related to the mode of death itself. And others take a relatively banal word and twist it into a completely unexpected, and often disgusting, direction. (Just wait till you see where Timo Tjahjanto lands with "L is for Libido.")

Other highlights, among others, come courtesy of Yudai Yamaguchi (J), who employs a brilliantly Looney Tunes-esque visual aesthetic; Angela Bettis (E), who takes the fundamentally simple premise of man vs. spider to entertaining heights (especially the way she utilizes repeated point-of-view shots from the spider); Xavier Gens (X), whose segment is a bloody, damning, tongue-in-cheek commentary on body image; Marcel Sarmiento (D), whose almost dialogue-free piece poetically uses subjective camerawork and a dreamlike mood to tackle an essentially ludicrous premise; Ben Wheatley (U), who uses first-person camerawork to stellar effect; and Thomas Malling (H), who deliriously combines cartoonish slapstick logic, burlesque dancing and Nazism.

Unfortunately, the film ends on a down note with Yoshihiro Nishimura's "Z is for Zetsumetsu," a stream-of-consciousness acid trip of outrageous imagery that, despite my affection for its Dr. Strangelove homage, ends long after it has worn out its welcome.

No doubt some will say the same about The ABCs of Death as a whole. But personally, I can only attest that the film - however mixed its results might ultimately (and inevitably) be - exemplifies the kind of freedom and creativity that movies are made for.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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