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ABC's of DEATH by Andrew Tupling

On the whole, we horror people seem to be receptive to anthology films – from the Ealing Studio’s atypical Dead Of Night in 1945 to Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors twenty years later, the early – mid 70s output from Amicus, the hits (Creepshow, Twilight Zone: The Movie, the little seen and underrated After Midnight) and misses (Creepshow 2, The Monster Club) of the 80s, to the direct to VHS boom of the 90s (which contains some reasonably good entries into the canon) right up to Trick R Treat in 2007 and VHS and S-VHS last year and this – these films have been around as long as we’ve been old enough to watch films and before. We like them – they’re easy to dip in and out of for starters, some of them are snapshots of a period in time or a certain time of year – but we both recognise and forgive them for their unwritten rule – not all of the stories in any given portmanteau will be strong, but in most cases, twenty minutes, maybe half an hour later, that segment you don’t like will be over, and the one you really like will start. That’s the beauty of such films, they’re fluid, and if you grew up with The Twilight Zone, or Tales From The Crypt, Tales From The Darkside, The Outer Limits, Kolchak, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, you appreciate them all the more for reminding you of things you were passionate about growing up when needed all your entertainment to be wrapped up inside of 20-30 minutes so you could move on to your next adventure.

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ABC's of Death
The Wickerman




The ABCs of Death is a little different to the norm though. Twenty-six segments, each representing a letter of the alphabet and a corresponding death-centric story, each filmed on a limited budget of $5000 by a different director (or, in the case of the letters O & Q, co-directors) who were given three instructions – include at least one death, keep things within the time remit, and begin and end with a spot of red. With a lot of alphabet to cover and a little over two hours to play with, each segment gets somewhere in the region of four minutes to tell its story. As such, its strength is also its weakness – if you don’t like one story, you don’t have long to wait until the next one comes along, but the flip side of that is if you find yourself really liking any given segment, it’s over just as it gets into its gear.

You might be able to guess just from glancing at the titles of each story (and the names of the directors) that it’ll be an eclectic mix, and it is. When The ABCs of Death works, it reallyworks, and when The ABCs of Death doesn’t work, it really doesn’t. Collectively, what you do have on show here is an incredible range of talent – a who’s who of genre cinema. In most cases, if you’re not familiar with some of the names on show (for the record - Kaare Andrews, Simon Barrett, Angela Bettis, Adrián García Bogliano, Bruno Forzani, Hélène Cattet, Ernesto Díaz Espinoza, Jason Eisener, Xavier Gens, Jorge Michel Grau, Lee Hardcastle, Noboru Iguchi, Thomas Cappelen Malling, 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) then you’ll be familiar with their work.




To comment on each section is a thankless task, but no matter what your preferences are, there will almost certainly be something on show to tick your boxes – including but not limited to Claymation, animation, satire, humour – be it subtle or sledgehammer unsubtle, body horror, arthouse, mystery, Nazisploitation. All this and more is on show. In some cases, a director’s segment is instantly recognisable as their work. In others, it’s a complete departure from what you might be expecting. In most cases, it’ll have you doing your research into each film-maker and reminding yourself of titles you saw before and haven’t seen for a while, or making a mental note to watch more of some of the director’s past work you meant to see but never got round to, or keep an eye out for anything they might do in the future.

By the time we get towards the end of the alphabet, we come to a realisation – there’s no denying that most of the short films are visually impressive and that over half of them are enjoyable, no denying that there’s a whole load of creativity on show, it’s just that there isn’t enough time in the space of a few minutes to tell each story, especially when you’re so focused on the grotesque, mostly memorable deaths on show. Six Feet Under is one of the finest television shows ever made, and my favourite part of the show was always the short scenes before the opening credits which would show the death of the week, usually in the most imaginative and unexpected manner possible. But without all the other elements which made up the show – the characters and their interaction, the relationships we built up with them over the years and so on – there’s not much beyond a short, quick punch. I’m not a film-maker and have no designs on being, but I imagine short films such as those on show here are more difficult to make effectively than a feature length film. It takes some skill to set, tell and finish a story in less than five minutes. – That’s what makes The ABCs of Death both a very hard and very easy film to review –hard because there’s just so much to try and cover – so many directors, so many styles, so much content, so much to both like and dislike, and easy because you must know what to expect from such a project before you watch it and be aware of whether or not it might be your kind of thing.

So on reflection, it might be a little unfair to label The ABCs of Death as an anthology and hold it up to comparison with any of the films named in the first paragraph. It’s not Creepshow; it’s not The Vault of Horror. If you’ve ever watched a collection of short films back to back, then you might think it an experience in that kind of style – it’s more of an experiment than an anthology, and like most experiments, it’s not always going to be successful. Of course, death and all of its circumstance isn’t the sole domain of horror – there’s death on show in any number of Disney films, for example – but death is at its rawest, at its most visceral and imaginative when it’s used in association with horror. People will continue to look down their noses at horror in all its forms until the end of time, but in terms of both literature and cinema, it’s one of the last outposts of imagination and one of the last vestiges of originality. Could you imagine death playing itself out in genres such as The ABCs of Romance, The ABCs of Drama, The ABCs of Comedy, even The ABCs of Crime? However hit or miss a project like this might be, we appreciate the passion, diversity and vision that goes into making it. Are there more misses than hits on show overall? Sure – but when it hits, it hits hard, and my favourite segment might not be yours, and neither of ours may be the choice of the person sat in front of you at the cinema. Even the ones we don’t like will still get us talking.