Despite their admired standing amongst the horror community, anthology films have often been box office disappointments, despite often times serving as big screen showcases for smaller, contained narratives. Often times, these films also become the testing grounds for unproven or financially risky subgenres, such as urban horror (Tales from the Hood, Hood of Horror), horror comedy (Creepshow, Trick ‘r’ Treat) and television-to-screen adaptation (Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, The Twilight Zone: The Movie). And as the anthology concept finds greater legs in the home media market, especially with the popular and divisive V/H/S films and the Masters of Horror series, the platform finds itself more accommodating to experimental and shocking concepts.Therefore, when Ant Timpson and Tim League put together The ABC’s of Death, the concept was met with much fanfare. Simply put, there were 26 segments spread out amongst over 30 filmmakers, some solo and some in pairs, and with complete creative freedom at their disposal, the filmmakers set out to tell 26 tales of death, each corresponding with a specific letter of the alphabet. And although some tales are not winners, and a select few are outright disappointing, the majority of the film turned out to be a fascinating success, providing horror fans with an eclectic balance of unique international genre voices.
Anthology films are amongst the most difficult to judge as a whole film, especially when deprived of a wrap-around segment, as The ABC’s does right off the bat. Genuinely speaking, the effectiveness of The ABC’s of Death will stem from each individual viewer’s experience with the film, including taste, preference and impact. One of the best aspects of The ABC’s of Death is that the film never reveals the identity of the filmmaker or the use of the letter until after each segment has ended, allowing personal prejudices against any contributor to become irrelevant.
So to properly analyze an anthology film, one must analyze the technical aspects of the majority of the segments as well as the number of successful segments as opposed to the number of failures. This also means reviewing in generalities, in order to not reveal the subject matter of each short as well as speak of more than a single segment at a time. It’s also worth mentioning that the film is not confined to the horror genre specifically, even if the subject matter dips each segment ever so slightly into the calming waters of genre work.
In terms of technical prowess, the film is mostly a success, with the exception of a few small segments that either looked as if they were shot through a low-grade smartphone or outdated digital camcorders. With only a budget of $5,000, some of the segments look miraculously on-point and even at times grandiose, including the segments from Marcel Sarmiento, Thomas Malling and Kaare Andrews. Other segments use their limited budget to experiment with camera angles, color schemes and silent narratives, including the segments from Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani, Srdjan Spasojevic and Jason Eisener. And yet some come so close to greatness before the technical limitations of each segment compromise the pieces’ overall effectiveness, including promising entries from Jon Schnepp, Ernesto Espinoza and Jake West.
In terms of overall entertainment value, the film is incredibly strong and immersive. The guessing game that each segment takes you on is mostly lived-up to, despite crushingly disappointing segments from Angela Bettis, Ti West and Andrew Traucki. Overall though, the film offers humor (most effectively in Adam Wingard’s segment), cringe-worthy gore (most effectively in Xavier Gens’ segment), outrageousness (most effectively in the eye-popping segment from Yoshihiro Nishimura) and innovation (most effectively in Ben Wheatley’s segment). And while not every single segment is a home run, the majority of outliers are watchable and palatable, sure to satisfy those whose tastes aren’t invested in polar extremes of subgenres.
In total, The ABC’s of Death feels like a sampler plate of exquisite genre craftsmanship, in the sense that not everything may be your taste, but those with an open mind may enjoy what they find. Running over two hours for the film as a whole, the pacing feels brisk, as your mind is often so involved in each tale that your attention rarely separates itself from what is on screen. Will it be shocking to some? Undoubtedly. Unwatchable to others? Possibly. But is the film really damn fun and thoroughly imaginative? You bet it is.
This aspect ranges from segment to segment, although since many, if not all, of the segments are shot digitally, they all benefit from the HD upgrade. The sharpness and color contrast is fantastic, with almost no crush or distracting print marks, although Ti West’s segment, seemingly shot on a mobile phone camera, is filled with distracting grain and poor color correction. However, many of the segments are photographed beautifully, with lush colors and appropriate saturation. The transfer is well worth the upgrade price.
With the exception of Angela Bettis’s segment, the audio of every segment is incredibly well. Segments utilizing music or silence don’t suffer from hiss, and the sound design on other pieces are utilized incredibly by the discs English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio transfer.
For fans of filmmaking, this disc is made for you. Behind The Scenes Featurettes and Select Deleted Scenes are available for 15 of the 26 segments, showing how many of these shorts were so ingeniously made and offers a glimpse to what the story could hold beyond the time restrictions. AXS TV is a look into how The ABC’s of Death came about, which is good for the unfamiliar but ultimately skip-worthy. The bread-and-butter of the special features may be the Filmmaker Commentary track, offering personal insights into each segment from their respective creator. The disc also features an entertaining Red Band Trailer and for those with BD-Live compatibilities, you can access the non-selected submissions for the “T” segment, which was chosen via contest.
If you want something new and challenging out of your genre fare, or if you want to get a taste of upcoming genre filmmakers you may or may not have heard of, then The ABC’s of Death is a worthy recommendation. Those easily freaked out or unwilling to be challenged will abandon the film post-haste, but the genre community, especially anthology fans, will not be disappointed. The disc may not offer much aside from a great transfer and an even better film, but the film is meant to be consumed on the most fitting set-up possible, so if you’ve got a good home theater and a hankering for unfiltered cinematic madness, then accept no substitutes.
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.